To most non-technical people, the mere mention of IT can be a turn-off. Although traditionally associated with geeks developing code in a back room, IT - in its very broadest sense - forms the backbone of organisations today, which begs the question: why is there still such a huge communication gap between the IT discipline and the business it powers? Jonathan Poole discusses how to help resolve the issues between business and IT, and how agile methods might just save their relationship.

While IT and business have had a close relationship, it is only fairly recently that a more integral partnership - where both parties share business goals and objectives - has been critical in driving the business forward. Historically, technology projects have been owned and driven by the IT department and, more often than not, have failed to create the connection between the technology implementation and business value.

The newlyweds

Like any new marriage, there are conflicts of interest and differences in opinion and approach that can inhibit an effective collaboration. This typically results in the business thinking it's not being served by the IT department, and opportunities are being missed because of IT's inability to respond quickly. In contrast, the techies say they are doing all they can, but the business is constantly changing its requirements and doesn't understand the complexity of what's being asked for. Even though IT will drive a project, the business often views IT as a mere back office function, not supporting its role in creating business value.

It is common for businesses to fail to measure the true value of IT, however this is a mistake. Only by assigning business value, in hard currency, to each IT deliverable and even every feature of a deliverable, can business truly manage the relationship with IT effectively. When embarking on any IT project, it must be developed in line with business need and provide a measurable output of how the project will help drive business forward.

End of the honeymoon period

The development of a new software application can prompt a classic case of communication breakdown. Using the traditional waterfall approach, the business starts off by communicating its objectives reasonably well - scoping out the project in a huge amount of detail upfront. Then the business hands over the project to the IT department, and leaves it well alone for months... then wonders why the end result doesn't meet their expectations.

The problem is this: the waterfall approach encourages IT and business to work in parallel with one another rather than in an integrated, collaborative process. This method of defining requirements without reviewing them on an ongoing basis leaves no room for change, so when change inevitably occurs, it means that deadlines and costs can spiral out of control.

Coming to an understanding

The challenge for nearly all businesses is to therefore get IT and business to share similar objectives and continually communicate those objectives effectively. The IT department might be interested in the bits and bytes of specific technologies, but what it should really be asking of the business is: how much revenue would the business like from a new implementation? Being able to evaluate and analyse projects in these terms on an ongoing basis is vital in order to get business buy-in from the start.

Having someone or something that can aid mediation between the two departments is the only way for both sides to get what they want and for the IT project to succeed. This is where agile methods and processes - developed primarily to ensure success in software development projects - can provide the answer.

Agile methodology breaks down a project into short one-four week iterations, each treated as a 'mini-project' that is planned, scoped out, designed, coded and tested before moving onto the next iteration. Input from the business and its users is included every step of the way, so that the resulting application matches the business requirement as closely as possible. Daily 'scrum' meetings allow project workers to discuss their progress, actions for the day and any possible challenges - but are kept very short so that meetings don't impede progress.

An example of how agile methods can increase collaboration between business and IT can be seen in Valtech's recent work with one of the UK's leading travel companies. The company relied on IT to manage bookings, but technology was still considered a back office function and not a strategic business asset. The current systems were unable to meet growing demand and while IT was attempting to respond to this problem from a purely technical standpoint, the business was demanding, cajoling and threatening over lost revenue and poor customer satisfaction.

By using agile principles to engage the business, right up to MD and marketing director, the emphasis was moved from a purely technical one to looking at the overall problem, aligning business and technical staff in resolving the problems. This resulted in a highly prioritised set of development tasks that met the immediate needs of customers and business alike, laying the foundation for much improved future deliveries by transforming the working practices of the company.

A match made in heaven

The relationship between business and IT is a complex one whose parameters will continue to develop and evolve over time. Agile methods can aid in bridging the gap in communications and stabilise the once rocky relationship between IT and the rest of the business. Facilitating the lines of communication will lead to an effective partnership and lay the foundations for a match made in heaven, rather than hell.

Jonathan Poole is CEO of Valtech.