Refining Translation: 4 Areas to Mature the Interface Between Tech and Biz
Companies are not unlike computer systems in that they are a collection of components forced to work together to be efficient, competitive, and profitable. When these components are not working together or communicating properly, bad things happen.
When two computer system modules exchange information or data, it’s called an interface or, more specifically, an application interface.
When two departments inside your organization hand off information to one another, this also is an interface. As an example, if human resources needs a new camera for ID Cards, they must pass information on to procurement in order to complete the purchase. The two departments must exchange information in order for an action to take place.
These information exchanges often go through a bit of a translation. And in translation, things can get misinterpreted, dare I say “lost in translation.” To build on our previous example, HR probably has an understanding of which camera they need and why they need it. They must provide this infomation to procurement (via a purchase order). This information is relatively meaningless to procument, a problem that might lead to the mishandling of information.
Nowhere is this type of interdepartmental information exchange and translation more important, and also most likely to suffer from translation errors and omissions, than in the interface between the business-side and technology-side in your company. This is what I call the Tech-Biz Interface.
There are very real reasons why you must be diligent in ensuring that this particular interface runs as smoothly, accurately, and as error-free as possible.
Today, far more often than ever before, the business’ needs and much of its interactions with customers or partners are largely (at times exclusively) accomplished via technology and software. Meanwhile, technology is a rather large and costly investment. Business operations today are only as strong as the technology that is deployed in both processes and outreach.
There are many reasons why the Tech-Biz Interface has a high potential for erroneous translations. It boils down a few different reasons. First, business and technology often speak very different languages. They also have very different focuses: one has a primary focus on the business and one focuses primarily on technology systems. Finally, they both face very different realities: one faces the increased pressure and accelerated change of market forces while the other battles the limits of available technology and the time needed to implement change within the organization with control and quality.
This is simply reality, and this reality must be approached and managed accordingly.
Yet, organizations often struggle with, or outright ignore, the Tech-Biz Interface because it is difficult to manage. This is not a good strategy because it resides in an area central to the organization.
Lost in Translation
Anyone who has traveled abroad to a country where you do not speak the language is keenly aware of how important it is to have good translations. For instance, when nature is calling, you’d sooner ask for the bathroom and not the swimming pool
To help to ensure sure that you are prepared to ask the right question correctly, there are several options available to you.
You can study the language before your trip and learn key phrases and questions you are likely to need/use (Education).
You can hire a translator to travel with you while you are there (People).
You can use a translation book, website, or application that runs on your smart device. (Artifacts and Process)
One of these options will be needed, or you might find yourself mistakingly, and rather desperately, staring at a swimming pool instead of a toilet bowl.
Similar options exist to ensure that the Tech-Biz Interface provides smooth information handoffs and translations.
Education: Business-side leaders need to be more aware of what technology is capable of, how to best leverage it, and what it really takes to harness its power. It is no longer acceptable for business leaders to ignore the particulars of technology implementation. Similarly, technology-side leaders work in the service of an organization. They cannot and should not be unaware of that organization’s goals, objectives, opportunities, challenges, and ultimate strategy. Ignoring this to focus complete efforts on “keeping the lights on” is unacceptable. Period. That being said, it’s education that can bring these two sides closer to speaking the same language. Business leaders must take the time to understand technology and how that technology impacts the business; technology leaders must understand strategy, specifically, the operational strategy of the organization.
Artifacts: These reflect the documents we use (like the PO from HR to procurement) to ensure that what is needed is properly and fully articulated between departments or silos. Included in this are such things as detailed business requirements, functional specifications, design documents, and user manuals. While these usually center around a specific project, there are also more overarching documents required such as IT project portfolios, release calendars, and IT Supply & Demand data.
People: The translators, often the Business Analysts (BAs). BAs have a unique understanding of both sides of the organization (business and technology) and can interact fully with both (or at least better than the two sides are able to directly). BAs are used in specific projects but not usually in addressing the overarching interface needs. BAs can and do live on both the business-side and on the technology-side. There is no wrong place to use them.
Process: This is a wider category that includes things like User Acceptance Testing, sign-offs, and Project Management (up to and including Steering Committees). User Testing and sign-offs are at the project level, while Steering Committees work at a more overarching strategic level. Yet, both levels are needed for a well-functioning interface.
Below is a look at what I refer to as a Well-Tuned Essential Tech-Biz Interface. All of these elements are necessary (in most cases) to ensure a solid Tech-Biz Interface.
Some of these components may exist inside your organization but probably not all.
Often, a concerted effort to raise the awareness and knowledge levels of business people about technology, and of technology people about business (via education), is often a missing piece. Education is often forced to happen organically. Growth can occur, but usually not to the level required.
Let me be clear. Business leaders do not need to turn into technologists. Rather, they need to be given a solid framework or context into how technology and technologists work and how to effectively and efficiently leverage technology to improve business operations.
As opposed to allowing this education to happen organically, its more effective if leaders are actively seeking knowledge about ways they can use technology to improve operations. Building a RIVERS OF INFORMATION® is a great place to start. Develop a robust Rivers of Information in which relevant and insightful content concerning a specific topic, whether that be machine learning, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, automation or anything else, can flow to you. If it comes to you, instead of requiring you to daily spend the effort to seek it out, you will be much more effective at managing your time learning and learn a lot more.
Knowledge sharing is another great way to improve education. Put yourself into a room with other leaders who are also anxious to improve their technology IQ. It’s a great way to learn from others experiences while developing this fundamental knowledge. This is the goal of our upcoming Technology and Leadership Series. We put leaders in a room together, so they can learn, grow, and develop the skills to speak the foundational language of technology.
Process, at a strategy level, is another area many organizations lack in a Tech-Biz Interface. The overarching level (e.g. Steering Committees and IT Supply & Demand data) is often lacking. This is because while project management and other important project areas (process, artifacts, etc.) have a solid industry body and set of standards (Project Management Body of Knowledge or PMBOK), the more overarching and non-project specific aspects do not have these standards. Yet these overarching aspects are as important, if not more important, than those for individual projects. It is via these overarching mechanisms that we determine which projects to undertake and how to prioritize them.
Establishing a well-run Steering Committee is not the easy. It can often be an uncomfortable process. That, however, does not make it any less essential.
The Steering Committee Inefficiency
The reason why establishing steering committees can be difficult comes down to institutionalized habits that are difficult to break.
New forums of this type, that bring together somewhat disparate groups, can be initially stilted and somewhat rough around the edges. When you consider the influence and schedules of the type of people you need to bring together on a frequent basis (for what are not usually short meetings), this initial roughness can make any eagerness to be a part of a committee to wane considerably.
Therefore, it is very important that these meetings be well-run, concise, and effective. Meetings must strike a delicate balance, being both structured and goal driven while allowing for constructive exchange. It takes a good amount of planning and a strong person to facilitate. These meetings must be good meetings, and we all know that is a rare commodity.
Technology is and will continue to be at the axis of your business and operations. It will play a dominate role in customer and partner interactions, now and more so in the future.
Technology only serves us well when its serves the needs of the organization it lives within. Therefore, business and technology must exchange information well, making a well-tuned Tech-Biz Interface essential. Improving this interface must be an active endeavor, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable it might be.