I was speaking recently with the CIO of a large insurance company about his greatest business challenges (as we consultants love to do). One of the key challenges he described was ‘filling the gaps’. In other words, his team was struggling to provide functionality in the spaces where their major systems didn’t reach, but doing so in a way that didn’t compromise security or stability.
In every business, there are functional gaps between core applications; processes that don’t quite fit, workflows or data models that aren’t quite supported (Figure 1). These gaps can arise quickly through changing customer demands and market opportunities. And while we’d like to think that modern core systems will react as quickly as they need to, often the time required to get this new functionality from the backlog to production doesn’t match the speed of business. This forces users into stopgaps that make IT cringe and can put the business at risk.
The Curse of Excel
Consider Microsoft Excel, the ultimate technology stopgap. There is almost no process that a competent Excel user can’t ‘automate’ in some fashion. We all know of users taking a detour off the data super highway of their core systems to drive down the dirt road that is Excel. Don’t get me wrong, in some instances Excel is absolutely appropriate. For instance when temporary fixes or prototypes are needed or when it’s used at the end of a process for ad hoc analysis and reporting. However, when Excel or another stopgap solution becomes a permanent component in the middle of a process – where a user takes data out of the core system, manipulates it or manages its flow and then reenters the process with the updated data – the organization loses visibility and control, and risk goes up. When these stopgap measures occur, the business loses the benefit of the careful QA processes that accompany core system roll outs, potentially adding risk without knowing it.
This dynamic puts the CIO between a rock and a hard place. After all, Excel is a technology tool that IT puts in the hands of users to help them solve their business problems. How do you then explain to users that there are some problems they aren’t allowed to solve with Excel? Users are bound to argue that if IT could solve their problems quickly with a more ‘industrial strength’ solution, then they wouldn’t need to create stopgap solutions (and they do have a point). However, if these stopgaps aren’t controlled, more of them will emerge over time and the risk to the organization will compound.
The Third Alternative
To resolve this dilemma organizations need ‘gapplications’, a third class of applications somewhere between core systems and desktop stopgap tools; applications designed specifically to fill the gaps quickly but that do so with a level of control and consistency that allow them to be a managed part of the IT architecture. Gapplications provide the right balance between flexibility and security, between speed to implement and control.
Does a flexible and fast to implement technology product that solves these gaps sound like too much to ask from a technology solution? It is if it’s implemented with the same development process and organizational structure we use for core systems. If we use this new flexible technology with the same existing core IT product view, we’re unlikely to achieve anything but a moderate improvement in speed to implement, and Excel solutions will continue to propagate like bunnies. Truly effective gapplications have to be part of an integrated program consisting of flexible technology, quick response teams, and agile development practices. With the right combination of these and the right executive commitment, organizations can realize significant benefits from a focused gapplication program.
In part two, I’ll examine the technology component of a gapplication program, how to identify areas of greatest need and the technologies that most effectively address them. Part three will cover the process and people aspects and how business and IT can work together to maximize the program’s value. By putting these pieces into place, companies can fill the gaps, achieving the benefits of being more responsive to their users while minimizing the risks posed by stopgap solutions.