Having the Right Conversations: A Q&A with Craig Alexander

By The Open Group

For many years now, IT departments have been accused of being out of alignment with the needs of the business. According to Craig Alexander, a strategic consultant for Hewlett Packard Enterprise in EMEA, IT4IT™ Reference Architecture has a chance to finally change all that.

Alexander, who has a background in large business transformations, says that Enterprise Architects (EAs) and IT departments alike should be looking at the successes and failures of past projects to help them better plan for what they need to do today.

We spoke to Alexander in advance of The Open Group Paris 2016 (October 24-27), where he will be speaking, about how the past can inform IT projects today, why ITIL is still relevant despite the new approach the IT4IT standard offers and how to have the right conversations that will move projects forward and better guarantee successful outcomes for everyone.

The title of your session is “To Plan for the Future, Look to the Past.” Why should EAs be looking backwards to look forward?

I’m not an architect. My background is in traditional service management practice moving into transition management and large-scale transformations, all of which have a business outcome.

If we look back through the eyes of IT4IT programs—whether it be large scale programs or transformations—we can pick up points and things we’ve done in the distant past and see where we’ve learned our lessons that helped to arrive at IT4IT standard. But moreover, we can project that forward in terms of ‘let’s not forget what we learned in the past and use that knowledge and that information as we move forward with IT4IT programs, so we’ll be better informed and better able to succeed.’

The thing that got me thinking about that was, I reached a certain age recently and started getting interested in history, where I’d never really been interested in it when I was younger. One of the things that comes out all the time when you study history, whether you’re talking about conflicts, financial crashes or similar significant events, is that if you look into the past you can find out what might happen again in the future. History tells us what could happen in the future. That was the somewhat tenuous link I made in my mind in terms of my role and ‘Wouldn’t it have been great if we’d had the IT4IT vision when we did this?’

One of the things I asked my very first customers on a project nearly 20 years ago was ‘Why are we here?’ At the time this drew strange looks and some incredulity with responses of ‘We’re here to do this, we’re here to do that.’ I remarked ‘That’s what we’re here to do—but why are we doing it?’ At this point the team looked puzzled and said ‘Well actually we hadn’t thought of that.’ The customer CIO then said, ‘That’s a good point—we should all understand why we’re doing what we’re doing,’ and proceeded to provide the context of the project. Then we all knew why we were there!

I’ve always used that approach, but it’s only been since the IT4IT Reference Architecture has come to the fore that common sense has started to prevail in the industry. It’s still very much the minority view, especially within IT teams. It’s not so much within architecture groups, especially those that are adopting IT4IT programs, but it’s very easy to get entrenched in technology and the benefits that can be most immediately realized with technology as opposed to how it reaches into why and how business plans succeed or fail.

Certainly in my time in the industry both at organizations within IT and at end-user organizations, one of the common things I’ve seen is that it’s very easy for clever, focused or driven people to be a little blinkered when it comes to the point of doing technology. I’ve never been one to advocate that approach. IT is not there for the sake of IT—IT is there for a business purpose. At some point prior to a project starting or a migration or change in supplier, someone made a business decision that led to that occurring. They didn’t make an IT decision. And that’s the realm in which I operate. I try to make sure anyone with an IT focus I work with has that perspective.

In what ways do you see the past of IT now informing the future?

We can look back at the origins of business decisions and what has arisen as a result of them—the standards that could have been used at the time, how they have supported progress and how they helped or restricted any transformation in an organization.

For example, a transformation may be primarily driven from an ITIL or architectural perspective over and above the supplier governance or integration—by aligning these factors differently the transformation results (i.e. business outcomes) could have been manifestly better for no additional cost.

That’s the sort of example of how we can use the IT4IT vision moving forward—think back to how it might have worked elsewhere, what you might have learned and project that forward and don’t be afraid to shout about it. For large transformation projects, the more experience and more wealth of knowledge you have can increase the chances of that transformation succeeding.

Has ITIL then proved to be inadequate for what customers need today?

ITIL is great and has proven to be for as long as I can remember. It was the first thing I did in my post-graduate role. It’s been very powerful for customers and continues to be. I see a similar route for IT4IT 15 years hence in terms of its adoption and development, regardless of industry. With respect to IT4IT, ITIL is much more focused on the delivery end of things as opposed to the strategic end of things and the reference architecture. That’s not to say it can’t touch on it, but it was never really designed to be that.

The observation we see retrospectively when we work within the realms of IT4IT is that ITIL was descriptive in its nature not prescriptive, which is one of the key differences in its nature. That prescriptive approach was very positive up to a point because it allowed organizations to adopt principles and work in a way where things are applied best. I’ve worked with organizations that have been very knowledgeable, astute and mature in that regard where things are very specific to the company. But one of the challenges that has arisen in the past has stemmed from the ability to apply interpretation to the standard.  For example in a multi-supplier environment where various organizations can all be applying ITIL but in ways which require complex integrations and create unnecessary difficulty when technology, legislative or supplier changes are required.

I will never criticize ITIL for what it was if for no other reason than it was the heart of what I did for a number of years and it helped to mature the IT Industry. Now the IT4IT standard has been launched and is being consumed, there is probably more than a fair share of—pun intended—revisionist history being applied to ITIL, which played a role for its time and will continue to play an important role moving forward. IT4IT, however, goes a bit further to make the connection toward business outcomes.

How does IT4IT better address the needs of organizations today?

The approach that I have been taking for the last 18 months within the HPE group I work in is rather than having an initial conversation with customers about a technology solution, something going out of support or more functionality, we’re having a conversation that starts with: ‘What are you trying to achieve? What are the business outcomes you’re trying to realize? We think technology might play a part in that.’ This is usually conducted in conjunction with an IT sponsor (a senior decision-maker or stakeholder) along with someone from the IT department. We’re being told by our customers that we’re having the ‘right’ conversations now. It’s a different conversation, but it’s the right conversation to have because it’s allowing IT to have discussions with leaders in terms that the business understands much more effectively.

An extreme example: One of our customers found themselves justifying funding for IT projects, something they had not really done in the past. Why? The business simply could not understand the value they would get from the projects. Despite all the use of acronyms and IT technology ‘speak,’ the customers’ needs were simple. Deliver value. Tell us what this will be and when we will get it. IT could not articulate this so consequently funding was being withheld.

Because IT4IT is structured around IT as a value chain supported by value streams, when using it logically it drives the conversation to value. Customers love this and realize immediately that the technology conversations they have been having with IT are the wrong ones. They want the value conversations and IT4IT has a major role to play here. Other customers have also told us ‘we’ve been having the wrong conversation’ even before we tell them how IT4IT can specifically address their own particular challenges; it’s like a light has suddenly been switched on. These are game-changing situations.

That’s been the most positive outcome—there’s so many things that historically IT departments never did. They’re starting to think in much more business terms. If we think back about the rhetoric in our industry three years ago there was a lot of ‘What is the position of the CIO? Should they be on the Board?’ There was all this conjecture about what that role should be. Increasingly, the IT department is being looked upon as just another business unit, so if the CIO is able to have the same conversation at a board level as finance or sales or marketing, that puts them at a better advantage;. IT4IT only serves to support that agenda.

In looking toward the past, how large a scope should IT organizations consider? Should they just look at what’s worked for them in the past or do they need to consider the industry as a whole?

For me, it starts at home. What has worked for us in the past? What are the things we know best? What are the parts of the company that are more challenging than others? Are there geographies where projects work? At the same time, in most organizations there will be individuals who have come from different industries, so exploiting all of their experience should always be taken into account. But the primary focus is what is being projected forward and taking that learning and the best knowledge and using it.

The people aspect is the hardest. You can take statistics from a number of years and derive any number of conclusions from that, but the behavior and the culture of the organizations are probably the strongest indicators of what a transformation’s impact will be It’s relatively easy to swap out IT, it’s not easy to change organizational behavior. It’s a lot harder to change the way people think or to motivate them toward certain outcomes. That’s where I would be trying to derive the most information from. It’s easy to prescribe a technology transformation, but if the organization as an entity don’t go along with that, no amount of technology change is going to make difference.

As a standard, how can IT4IT continue to evolve so that it remains relevant into the future?

There is no doubt that the timing for IT4IT is perfect. The industry is crying out for a prescriptive approach to running the business of IT. Value delivery and value realization will the lifeblood of IT in the future. So will IT4IT evolve? Almost certainly. As more organizations adopt IT4IT there will definitely be amendments and improvements. After all the current reference architecture is only version 2. Where I think the biggest impact could be is if organizations start to mandate IT4IT and vendors have to become IT4IT compliant. That’s when we will see even larger scale adoption and greater evolution of IT4IT.

At the end of the day, everything is geared toward digitalization, the digital transformation of organizations. That is the one common thing we see—irrespective of industry, geography, scale, or political environment—the digital agenda is governing everything. It is certainly our view at HPE that IT4IT is a very important means to achieving that. And when we start talking about IT4IT in the context of digital transformation, the resonance of the relevance of the IT4IT architecture and the approach to how an organization aligns with that resonates much more. At the same time, it also helps with the legacy side of things. It’s not just about IT4IT being relevant from a future technology perspective but it also allows organizations to manage the legacy with a forward looking aspect. So we see a lot of enthusiasm around that as well.

Organizations want a common way of running their IT, a common set of standards irrespective of the supplier, irrespective of the maturity of the technology, and IT4IT is giving them that option. We urge our customers to think big and start small. Start with the specifics, start with the most important areas of the business. Where are the needs to be addressed, pains and challenges first, and then progress from there and bring other parts of the organization into that way of thinking.

I use the analogy with my customers that if they’re using an airline’s app on their smartphone to change their flight, change their seat or purchase baggage, that’s not a new system that they’re using on their phone. That’s just the portal through which they view the old system that’s been around for 25-30 years and they want to be able to use that trusted system. So there’s a need to marry the user experience and the technology.

Is there anything that you can point to that accounts for the rapid adoption of IT4IT since its release?

I think for many organizations, IT4IT is bringing things into focus. Customers are usually reluctant to say ‘We’re really struggling to find something that’s working for us.’ Admitting to struggling with something is not something that many organizations like to share. I think for many organizations in the position where the digital agenda and the need to think like customers’ customers is very prominent, they’re making the connection between this standard and the prescriptive approach. IT4IT is industry, supplier and technology agnostic, and customers can take it on and adopt it in whatever appropriate way they see for their own organization; they can make it work regardless of how little or much knowledge they have in their organization because there’s also a community of organizations out there, like ourselves, who will help them with their transformation. I think there is a light bulb moment going on where they say ‘Yes, this could work,’ where instead of marrying two or three standards together to make it work for them, it’s a common way to move forward—that’s the recognition with which the uptake has manifested itself.

We have never had a prescriptive reference architecture for running the business of IT so it’s hardly a surprise that now we have one organizations are interested to find out more and work out how to use IT4IT. As also mentioned earlier, other approaches such as ITIL took a slightly different approach and IT4IT addresses a gap that has yet to be addressed by any other approach. So it really is the right thing at the right time!

For the press release of the launch of the IT4IT standard, click here.

For more information on The Open Group IT4IT™ Forum, please visit here.

The Open Group IT4IT™ Reference Architecture, Version 2.0 is available here.

@theopengroup #ogPARIS

by-the-open-groupCraig Alexander joined HP in December 2011 as a Strategic Transformation Consultant to deliver transformation initiatives linked to the adoption of software solutions with much of this focus was around SIAM-based initiatives for major clients. Since the end of 2014, he has focused on creating and initiating IT4IT-based initiatives for EMEA-based customers. His role consists of consulting with customers to promote the benefits of adopting an IT4IT approach to delivery and transformation whilst leveraging the expertise and capabilities of the wider Hewlett Packard Enterprise organization to deliver true business value.