How ‘uncertainty’ can be used to create a strategic advantage

[TL;DR This post outlines a strategy for dealing with uncertainty in enterprise architecture planning, with specific reference to regulatory change in financial services.]

One of the biggest challenges anyone involved in technology has is in balancing the need to address the immediate requirement with the need to prepare for future change at the risk of over-engineering a solution.

The wrong balance over time results in complex, expensive legacy technology that ends up being an inhibitor to change, rather than an enabler.

It should not be unreasonable to expect that, over time, and with appropriate investment, any firm should have significant IT capability that can be brought to bear for a multitude of challenges or opportunities – even those not thought of at the time.

Unfortunately, most legacy systems are so optimised to solve the specific problem they were commissioned to solve, they often cannot be easily or cheaply adapted for new scenarios or problem domains.

In other words, as more functionality is added to a system, the ability to change it diminishes rapidly:

Agility vs FunctionalityThe net result is that the technology platform already in place is optimised to cope with existing business models and practices, but generally incapable of (cost effectively) adapting to new business models or practices.

To address this needs some forward thinking: specifically, what capabilities need to be developed to support where the business needs to be, given the large number of known unknowns? (accepting that everybody is in the same boat when it comes to dealing with unknown unknowns..).

These capabilities are generally determined by external factors – trends in the specific sector, technology, society, economics, etc, coupled with internal forward-looking strategies.

An excellent example of where a lack of focus on capabilities has caused structural challenges is the financial industry. A recent conference at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) has highlighted the following capability gaps in how banks do their IT – at least as it relates to regulator’s expectations:

  • Data governance and data architecture need to be optimised in order to enhance the quality, accuracy and integrity of data.
  • Analytical and reporting processes need to facilitate faster decision-making and direct availability of the relevant information.
  • Processes and databases for the areas of finance, control and risk need to be harmonised.
  • Increased automation of the data exchange processes with the supervisory authorities is required.
  • Fast and flexible implementation of supervisory requirements by business units and IT necessitates a modular and flexible architecture and appropriate project management methods.

The interesting aspect about the above capabilities is that they span multiple businesses, products and functional domains. Yet for the most part they do not fall into the traditional remit of typical IT organisations.

The current state of technology today is capable of delivering these requirements from a purely technical perspective: these are challenging problems, but for the most part they have already been solved, or are being solved, in other industries or sectors – sometimes in a larger scale even than banks have to deal with. However, finding talent is, and remains, an issue.

The big challenge, rather is in ‘business-technology’. That amorphous space that is not quite business but not quite (traditional) IT either. This is the capability that banks need to develop: the ability to interpret what outcomes a business requires, and map that not only to projects, but also to capabilities – both business capabilities and IT capabilities.

So, what core capabilities are being called out by the BIS? Here’s a rough initial pass (by no means complete, but hopefully indicative):

Data Governance Increased focus on Data Ontologies, Semantic Modelling, Linked/Open Data (RDF), Machine Learning, Self-Describing Systems, Integration
Analytics & Reporting Application of Big Data techniques for scaling timely analysis of large data sets, not only for reporting but also as part of feedback loops into automated processes. Data science approach to analytics.
Processes & Databases Use of meta-data in exposing capabilities that can be orchestrated by many business-aligned IT teams to support specific end-to-end business processes. Databases only exposed via prescribed services; model-driven product development; business architecture.
Automation of data exchange  Automation of all report generation, approval, publishing and distribution (i.e., throwing people at the problem won’t fix this)
Fast and flexible implementation Adoption of modular-friendly practices such as portfolio planning, domain-driven design, enterprise architecture, agile project management, & microservice (distributed, cloud-ready, reusable, modular) architectures

It should be obvious looking at this list that it will not be possible or feasible to outsource these capabilities. Individual capabilities are not developed isolation: they complement and support each other. Therefore they need to be developed and maintained in-house – although vendors will certainly have a role in successfully delivering these capabilities. And these skills are quite different from skills existing business & IT folks have (although some are evolutionary).

Nobody can accurately predict what systems need to be built to meet the demands of any business in the next 6 months, let alone 3 years from now. But the capabilities that separates the winners for the losers in given sectors are easier to identify. Banks in particular are under massive pressure, with regulatory pressure, major shifts in market dynamics, competition from smaller, more nimble alternative financial service providers, and rapidly diminishing technology infrastructure costs levelling the playing field for new contenders.

Regulators have, in fact, given banks a lifeline: those that heed the regulators and take appropriate action will actually be in a strong position to deal competitively with significant structural change to the financial services industry over the next 10+ years.

The changes (client-centricity, digital transformation, regulatory compliance) that all knowledge-based industries (especially finance) will go through will depend heavily on all of the above capabilities. So this is an opportunity for financial institutions to get 3 for the price of 1 in terms of strategic business-IT investment.

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How ‘uncertainty’ can be used to create a strategic advantage

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