Bob Sutton has an interesting post on the limits of expertise: I have already told you more than 125% of what I know. As he points out:
I think that those of us who are alleged to have expertise in certain topics can easily fall into this trap as we try to be helpful to others, and rather than stopping and realizing that we are beyond our expertise, we just keep saying more and more about things we know less and less about.
Bob is talking about journalism, but there’s a similar problem with the business-IT relationship. IT often forgets that subject matter experts don’t always have the answers needed; at least, not yet. Sometimes the subject matter experts need time to convert tacit knowledge —knowledge they know but which they can’t write down, or which they even struggle to explain — into a form which we can consume. Or they might even need time among themselves to create the knowledge together.
I’ve seen more than a few projects come unstuck because they didn’t understand that capturing knowledge is a journey you need to take with the business. The team continually returned to the business for more detail — asking for bullet pointed requirements or stories in a format that IT can easily consume — an approach which often fails, even if you have an embedded SME (à la Agile). (How many agile products have burnt out this customer representative with an overwhelming volume of detailed questions which the representative struggles to answer? Or transformation programmes which try to get the business to predict what they’ll need in a couple of years time, only to find out that they couldn’t predict that far into the future.) Sometimes the business just doesn’t know the answer, or can’t communicate it via our IT artefacts. They’ve already told us 125% of what they know.
We need to provide the business with a little help. This might involve iteration — showing them an early version to see “is what you meant”. It might mean deploying initial functionality into production quickly, and then building on the deployed solution. Or it might involve talking about the the things the business cares about — tasks, decisions, and points of variation, in the case of capturing a workflow — so that they can focus on the outcome they are driving too, leaving IT to worrying about how it might be implemented.
Today, we’re focused on leveraging the synergies between business and technology, rather than simply automating existing business processes. New technologies enable new business models which were not possible before. The business can see the opportunities but doesn’t know what’s possible. IT knows what’s possible, but can’t see the opportunities. Companies that understand this blur the line between business and IT, getting the two groups to work together, on the same side of the table, to identify and exploit these synergies. These companies — such as Zappos, P&G and Vanguard — identify and exploit new revenue streams which are unavailable to their peers.
What’s interesting about these companies is that they seem to have realised that building out their IT estate is a journey that IT and business need to take together, rather than a simple matter of IT asking business what they want.