The changing face of technology
One thing is certain in today's modern world: most businesses need technology to achieve its goals. However technology is changing the way businesses do business because technology itself is constantly changing.
The highly changeable nature of technology can be observed through the way computers have changed over the past 50 years.
For example, in the late 1960s and early 70s, computers were physically large and highly expensive machines. The size of computers meant they had to be housed in specially-built cooling rooms. As for the cost, computers could easily go into the hundreds or thousands if not millions of dollars. Computers of this expensive kind were mainly used by big corporations, the US Department of Defence, and some research facilities.
In the mid-1970s, computer got smaller in what we would refer to as a mainframe. The cost has tumbled to around $50,000 per mainframe, making the mainframes more accessible to medium-sized businesses.
The 1980s saw the explosion of the microcomputer for personal use costing under $5,000 such as the Apple Mac 128K. Under the $700 mark, consumers could pick up a Commodore Vic 20 for games and creating useful applications using its rudimentary BASIC language for programming.
In the 1990s, communications merged with computers. This was the era of networks including the biggest of them all known as the Internet. It was the decade when people could communicate through their computers to anyone in the world without getting off the chair thanks to a modem or network card, the TCP/IP protocol, and some additional software.
At the beginning of the 21st century, much of the bulk behind a computer have started to disappear inside the back of flat-panel monitors or look more like a metal book with a screen and keyboard on either side of what we would call the pages of the book known as laptops. Even the name PowerBook from companies such as Apple Computer, Inc. would lend to this description.
As all this was happening, the speed and size of computers have been changing dramatically. Computers are getting faster and smaller.
But not all the changes have been for the better. For instance, those publicly-listed companies such as Apple Computer, Inc. have decided to reverse the trend in areas such as the heat emitted by computers. As of 2005, the heat is getting much greater and some internal components are not handling the heat properly causing a more rapid break down of the products. This is to the advantage of the companies who need consumers to continually purchase computers to maintain profit.
But if we ignore this profit-oriented behaviour of some companies, in general, computers have continually challenged our notion of what we can achieve and how we can improve society in more ways than one. It is this changing nature and increasingly more flexible and powerful ways we can do things with technology is what IT professionals must investigate and present to business professionals to help them achieve their strategic objectives.
Because at the end of the day, businesses want to make money and get ahead of the competition. And it is part of the responsibility of IT professionals to see how this can be achieved with the latest technology.
What is migration of technology?
Migration of technology is really about a process of understanding the user requirements, researching the marketplace for new low-cost technologies, creating your own technologies (e.g. developing new software packages), finding out how the technologies can improve the business, presenting the results in a convincing way to business professionals, and then finally implementing an effective plan to migrate current technology in the business to the new technology should business professionals agree to the move.
It is more than just converting some data to make it readable in another software application. It is more than just moving computers around. It is a complete IT package for moving business into the 21st century and beyond.
The planning stage
Planning is the key to effective migration of technology for any business. The more planning you do:
- the better the quality of your IT solutions you find in the marketplace or create in-house.
- the less disruptions you create to staff and customers when making the transition to a new technology.
- the less risk that's involved.
- the lower the costs or production time, and/or the greater the sales and hence the bigger the profits will be.
- the easier and more enjoyable it will be for staff to achieve their goals and the more the customers want to do business with you.
Whatever planning you do, the crucial thing IT professionals have to remember is ensure the planning supports the planning by business professionals. By planning, we mean the strategic planning.
IT (or ICT if we include communications) and business are inextricably intertwined nowadays. That is an inescapable fact. Any suggestions you make as an IT professional must reflect the aims of the business. In essence, it means the technologies you create or find must help the business in some significant way. For example, the suggestions you make might help to:
- increase market share by 10% in the next 12 months
- reduce costs by $10,000 per year
- increase efficiency by increasing production by 10% with current staffing levels
- increase quality by reducing the number of defects by 10%
- increase customer service by developing a special relationship with profitable clients.
Hence the IT strategic planning you perform and create as an IT professional must revolve around the business strategic planning developed by business professionals.
What is a strategy?
Think of a strategy as a tactic or an approach you will take for something to be done. Therefore a business strategy is the way an organisation does business. While an IT strategy is the way technology helps people and other systems to do its job in the most effective and efficient way.
The business strategic plan is usually written as a statement of the actions that an organisation will perform to support its business goals. These actions are divided into short-term, medium-term and long-term goals covering from what to do now and up to 1 to 3 years into the future.
All businesses need to develop a strategic plan. It doesn't matter how large or small the business might be. For large businesses, the task of creating a business strategic plan can be highly complex requiring business planning experts to do the work.
Do I need to know the business strategic plan?
As an IT professional, you do not have to know the full intricate details of the business strategic plan. Your job is to be generally aware of what the business is trying to achieve and look for possible solutions to making the business aims and goals more easily achievable for everyone concerned. Look at how people in the business and those outside acting as customers do their work.
For example, what software are the internal customers (i.e. staff) using? Are the computers fast enough to help the staff?
As for the customers, are they finding the technology easy to use when getting services and/or products?
In other situations, you may be given an organisational problem to solve rather than observe what people in the business are doing. Again the approach is the same: develop the IT strategic plan to solve the problem.
At the end of the day, your job as an IT professional is simply to develop the IT strategic plan. It is the plan by which you help to make the business achieve its business goals in a better way.
If you aren't given an organisational problem to solve, a crucial step to knowing which areas need your attention for possible IT approaches is to do a SWOT analysis. You will normally find this already in the business plan. But if not, create your own IT-specific SWOT analysis for the business.
SWOT simply means looking at your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Hence the acronym S.W.O.T. Strengths are essentially what you are good at doing. Weaknesses are areas where you can improve on. Opportunities are advantages that can be gained from the external environment. And threats are those forces that adversely affect how you can do things.
Once you have this powerful piece of information in your hands, you can start using your IT skills to create your own or investigate new technologies available in the marketplace to either enhance the strengths of the business, to remove the weaknesses of the business, to capitalise on the opportunities available for the business, and/or to minimise the threats affecting your business.
For example, here is a SWOT analysis for one accountant running his business as a private practice:
- l have an existing client base
- l have financial planning expertise
- Complements existing service
- l have many contacts in banks, insurance companies, stockbrokers.
- Not licensed as a financial planner
- l do not have financial planning software
- Increasing demand for this service from an ageing population
- People becoming more aware of the necessity of financial planning
- Increasing number of people with early retirement advice.
- Similar services being offered by large institutions
Determining the actions to take
The SWOT analysis shows the following actions could be taken to improve the business:
- Apply for an financial planners licence.
- Set up a system to provide financial planning advice, including the required software.
- Inform existing clients of the new service.
- Advertise for new clients, emphasising personal service.
So how can an IT professional help the accountant achieve his business goals in a more effective way? The IT professional may direct the accountant to consider the following two possible IT solutions (or strategies):
- A mobile computing approach where financial planning software is loaded onto a laptop computer. The accountant can use this at the client's home or office to assist in providing financial advice.
- An lnternet approach where the clients provide details and financial plans are sent back.
Gather the information and present the plan
Remember, before any solution can be presented to any stakeholder, client or employer, make sure you talk to enough people. In the above example, this will be the accountant (but is he the only accountant?). In larger companies, it is best to talk to your users (i.e. the people within the business who will be affected by the solutions you suggest). Understand the user requirements first and to the most intimate level you can go and the solution will be more obvious and better for all.
Really look at how people do business. Observe the existing technologies in place and how they are achieving the business goals.
All this involves being familiar with interviewing and other communication techniques, interpreting user requirements, looking at current IT trends, conducting research into new technologies, finding tools to solve the perceived problems, and presenting the possible IT solutions to the appropriate people.
When presenting IT strategies to a business professional, make sure they are analysed in detail. In particular, be aware of the costs to purchase and implement the technology, and how long will it take for the technology to be available. Among the issues you should consider before presenting the IT strategies are the following:
- Will the organisation/client allow me to use a certain type of new technology as a solution depending on a set of strict guidelines in place?
- How much will the technology cost?
- When will the new technology be available?
- How long will it take to implement the systems?
- How well will the IT systems support the business plan?
- What effect will change have on the organisation?
- What effect will the new systems have on the existing system?
- Will existing systems have to be changed?
- Will policies and procedures have to be changed?
- Do we have enough licenses for the client?
- How many people will need the technology?
How to find and evaluate IT products
The most common sources of information to help you access and choose products (or IT tools) to solve a business problem include trade magazines, industry trade fairs, conferences, the internet, technical manuals and brochures, and observing other companies which already use the products (if they exist).
When you have a selection of IT tools available to you, you must analyse them more closely. What you are looking to record in, say, a spreadsheet table are the similarities and differences of the products.
IT professionals often use a product comparison tool developed on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to show the analysis. The spreadsheet is designed to have product names going across a single row. Thus each column is really the name of a product you wish to analyse. Another column is created showing all the important characteristics the products must have plus some extra ones for helping to future-proof the products and possibly give extra benefits to the business.
When choosing characteristics, ask yourself: "Does it offer the features the business is looking for?", "Will the characteristic help people to do tasks more efficiently or effectively?", "What will the impact of this characteristic be on current systems?", "Is it easy to install and use?", and "Does the business really need it?"
Then below each product name and next to each characteristic feature should be a number indicating how well the specific characteristic is reflected in the product.
For example, if you are looking at printers as a general solution for your business, one of the characteristics you may want to analyse is the number of A4 sheets you can hold in the paper tray of the printer. If one product shows in its brochure a figure of 100 A4 sheets as the holding capacity of its paper tray, you might consider this a 5 out of 10. Whereas another printer capable of holding 500 A4 sheets in the paper tray might be given an 8 out of 10 score because this might be a useful feature for the business to have. Therefore the spreadsheet will record the score in the appropriate cell.
Some product comparison spreadsheets may be a little more sophisticated in that you can actually type in the number as shown in the brochures. For example, you can type in 100 for the number of A4 sheets you can hold in the paper tray for a given printer. Then with a bit of calculations, the number is weighed up against all the other numbers in the same row containing the characteristic and turned into a weighted score out of 10.
The process is repeated for all the characteristics of every product. Once the numbers are in, the products with the highest weighted score determined by adding all the scores up for each product will become immediately apparent. These products will be the solutions you will present to your business professionals.
The implementation plan
And finally, you must implement the solutions. In other words, you should have an implementation plan prepared. This should show the software packages, hardware and communication tools needed. Explain why these products were selected. In other words, show the features and how they meet the business needs or goals. Reveal how the the products will improve productivity or give other benefits to the business. The plan should also reveal training, procedures and security. Costs are revealed and a schedule of implementation is part of the plan.
This implementation plan, together with the IT strategies (i.e. solutions) you have found, are usually enough to help the business professionals (e.g. the manager) decide on which strategy or parts of a strategy to implement or, no strategy at all.
Other IT professionals may go further and provide what is known as an Evidence Portfolio. This may be electronic or in hardcopy form. It reveals the evidence supporting why you think it will benefit the business.
The evidence is obtained by testing products. For example, you may be able to download a trial version of a piece of software for you to try out. Or perhaps a vendor will set up one computer and the software you need to see how it works. Then you can create documentation supporting how the products help the business goals.
Documentation can be snapshots of the screen, the procedures for achieving certain business goals etc.
Present the complete IT strategic plan to business
When you have the information, the Evidence Portfolio is added to the implementation plan and IT strategies to form the complete IT strategic plan for business professionals to review.
What happens after the plan is approved?
You start implementing the plan. This means:
- Purchasing the required software and hardware (check the organisation's policy on purchasing or talk to your client).
- If you need to fill in forms for the organisation to make the purchase, fill them in.
- Register any new software you receive from suppliers/vendors into a database, including registration numbers.
- Set up the infrastructure such as network cables and ethernet jacks in the wall. Make sure there is a numbering system to help identify the ethernet port to the right cable at the router end.
- Find where the hardware and software is delivered and pick the components up.
- Talk to your client first about a suitable time to install and configure all the components.
- At the suitable time, begin setting up, installing, configuring, testing and optimising all the components.
- Prepare the instructions for running the entire system (including the OS, software applications such as Microsoft Office, how to use built-in features of hardware).
- Give the instructions and deliver any necessary one-to-one training to the client.
- What do the clients need? What's the purpose of this requirement? Who are the people? What is the requirement? Check organisational aims, customer-base, the clients how will use the potential solution, etc.
- Start finding vendors and products (internet work).
- Choose the components - Check for support availability (will suppliers pay a third-party? Or do it themselves?) Reliability issues? Cost?
- Test the components. Give users an opportunity to try the systems and you write the results from a survey of all users.
- Notify managers of a new system solution.
- Implement solution.
- Start documenting a user guide. Train users in the system.
The final document contains the full solution, requirements, implementation etc. Clients sign off on this document. Meeting may be needed just before signing to discuss technical terms, give a demonstration, outline costs, and time frames etc.
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