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A Great Undiscovered Idea
By Imre Kabai, Chief Technology Officer, County Of Santa Clara
In the ocean of real and fake technology information, hides a significant idea that went mostly unnoticed. Gartner, Forrester, and Open Group have been promoting the concept of business capabilities for a long time, but little uptake can be observed. Google Trends shows that the search term “business capability” has been flat-lining for the past decade.
Like most good ideas, the concept of business capability is simple: we have to shift our focus from business process to business capability.
These are the rules we have followed to map out the business capabilities of our company:
Business capabilities are verb-noun pairs such as “recruit employee” or “manage supplier”; A business capability has to have an owner who is accountable for its performance; Investments in business capabilities have to have measurable impacts; The granularity of the business capability is carefully managed; The owner determines the strategy related to the business capability, has the budget and resources to impact the performance, tracks disruptors such as regulations, emerging technologies, and new paradigms, and maintains good understanding of the internal workings of the business capability.
With these rules we have clearly differentiated business capabilities from business processes. Business processes like procure-to-pay, hire-to-retire, and quote-to-cash seldom have a single accountable owner and tend to stretch through many on-premise and external systems. The related process knowledge is often incomplete, undocumented, and dispersed in the minds of many people. Often multiple organizational units, strategies, and budgets are associated with a single business process.
With the more granular business capabilities, IT can collaborate with a business capability owner and start to understand disruptors, strategies, and technology options. This enables IT to plan its investments in thoughtful ways once business capabilities have been associated with the specific underpinning IT services and core information, applications, and infrastructure elements.
With my team we have built a light-weight tool that maps out our business capabilities and links them to the underlying technology portfolios. This tool provides us with insight and helps us to both create our business-aligned IT investment strategy, as well as address some operational problems like technology lifecycle planning and setting the right support and operating models.
Here are a few example questions our tool can answer:
• Who is the business owner of a particular business capability?
With the more granular business capabilities, IT can collaborate with a business owner and start to understand business disruptors, strategies, and offer the right technology solutions.
• What are the disruptors, opportunities, and business strategy related to the capability?
• What are the technologies that support a particular business capability?
• Who are the technical owners of the technologies underpinning the business capability?
• How much do we spend operating the technologies for a particular business capability?
• What would be the measurable impact of an IT investment in a specific business capability?
• What critical business capabilities are dependent on low quality or aging technologies?
• What are the most critical IT services – because they support critical business capabilities?
• What business capabilities would be impacted if a technology component were to be changed?
• What is our virtualization and cloud adaptation rate within a business capability?
• What are our 3 year technology roadmaps and how do they support the business strategy?
• What are the best opportunities for synergies and de-duplication in our technology portfolios?
• Where are the unstructured documents related to a business or technology component?
Why did we build the tool ourselves? Simply because we could not find anything out on the market that would provide these answers and work with minimal maintenance effort.
If you are contemplating taking a similar route, here are a few lessons we have learned:
• Limited investment
We did several sprints producing minimally viable products. Our total investment was about 6FTE months. We built the solution on top of an existing Service Now platform.
• Control of complexity
By capturing all the underlying IT complexity, we could have turned our solution into a large and expensive configuration management database. Instead, we gave up on recording all the relationships and we simply organized all the application components supporting a business capability into sets of “business solutions”. Then we continued by grouping the technology elements into sets of “technology solutions” supporting a specific business solution. We also used the concept of objects and entities, and track certain technology components as objects (e.g. F5 load balancers) and others, where the specifics do matter, as entities (VMs, database instances etc.)
• Task automation
We populate the technology portfolios using automated scanning tools such as Extra Hop, ServiceNow Discovery, and Lansweeper. The solution kicks-off workflows to notify technical or functional owners when changes are detected and adjustments are needed.
• Document library
We associate unstructured documents with the technology and business elements to provide a rich interrelated index to all of our design and operational documents.
As far as my shop is concerned, we do not know how we used to manage without our tool. By shifting our focus from business processes to business capabilities we gained visibility to and the ability to control aspects of our technology planning and operations that used to be beyond our reach.