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Bridging the IT gap between rising business demands and ageing tools

Workshop Anyone who has been around the IT block a few times will have seen application deployments that didn’t quite match up to expectations. But as people frequently point out, it’s not just about the technology. While nobody sets out to deliver an implementation that displays the same discrepancies as the one it replaces, it remains inordinately difficult to fully respond to the needs of the business, particularly if the business has to change.

Kingspan Environmental and Renewables describes itself as “a purveyor of tanks for fuel and water storage, sewage treatment and pollution control”. Where there’s muck there’s brass, not to mention large quantities of information to be managed across 30 locations in the UK, Ireland and Europe.

Kingspan has spent the past decade or so reviewing, updating and consolidating its IT systems, both to keep up with growth and to respond to cost pressures. The organisation has moved from nine enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementations to two. Systems initially deployed to simplify the handling of information had moved from being part of the solution to causing problems of information integration and fragmented working practices, not to mention incurring high licensing and infrastructure costs. Dealing with these issues has had to take place in parallel with simplifying how business is done.

So, what lessons can we learn from organisations such as Kingspan? Richard Gray, systems and IT manager, says the key is to understand the difference between IT and information services (IS). “IT is what happens under the desk – the boxes and cables, and users aren’t particularly interested in that,” he says. “IT is about cost, whereas the value to the business is in the IS – the bit that happens on users’ screens and affects the way they work.”

You also have to know where to prioritise efforts. At the start of Kingspan’s journey, there was not enough emphasis on the services provided and on business users working with the technologists to define what they needed.

For example, when consolidating two ERP systems into one, each deployment implemented a different set of business concepts, rules and practices which, though broadly overlapping, required two groups of users to agree on a common set. “One hundred and fifty people came in every day to use these systems,” says Gray. “This is not just about changing what goes on under their desks, the people need to change how they work as well. It’s a business problem, not a technology problem.”

Who should deal with it? In many businesses it is commonly expected that anything to do with technology should be left to the IT department. Many IT departments are quite adept at understanding how their business operates and defining appropriate solutions, but sometimes the business has to make the decisions. Getting the business to seize this nettle can be difficult, particularly if the real benefit is to be felt by one part of the organisation – the finance department, say – while another part is to bear the brunt of the change.

It is perhaps unfeasible to expect the business to take full responsibility for its IT needs, but Kingspan learned to aim towards this goal. “We can still get better in how we engage the business, but equally, the business need to have the answers too,” says Gray. He adds that he sees his role moving towards facilitating the business to articulate its needs better.

Much of Kingspan’s “under-the-desk” IT activity – the cables and boxes – is now dealt with at group level. What of the future? When the topic of cloud computing comes up, Gray takes it in his stride.

“We’re already heading towards a utility model for IT, which enables us to focus more on the IS aspects,” he says. “IT is about costs, and IS is about value. Whether systems are hosted internally or externally doesn’t matter as long as we can increase our focus on what will make a difference to the organisation as a whole.” ®

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