Having an application strategy that allows employees to find and develop their own solutions is key to maintaining control of an enterprise IT environment, according to Graeme Hackland CIO at Lotus F1.
In an interview with Techworld, Hackland explained that a lot of companies are struggling to keep track of what is running in their environment, because employees are increasingly buying and downloading applications without the knowledge of the IT department.
This can be a particular problem for organisations with very strong governance policies in place, because getting an application approved often takes a long time and employees become impatient.
Hackland said that organisations should not necessarily seek to control the applications that people use – instead they should focus on protecting the data. This means allowing employees to choose the solutions they want, but encouraging them to involve IT in the process.
“I don’t mind if someone in electronics or in aerodynamics or in another part of the business wants to build their own apps or find apps out there that they want to use, but include us in it,” said Hackland.
“Often these guys will produce the best apps from a usability point of view, but maybe not the best app that’s going to be robust, so we bring them into our coding standards and we explain why we code the way we do.
“Then instead of that one person doing all of the development testing, deploying it, supporting it, we try and normalise it and say, you do the development but our tester will do the testing, and our change and release manager will put it into the production environment.”
Whereas in the past, these employees may have kept their app development activities to themselves, by being open and allowing them to choose their own apps, the IT department can now work with them in partnership, making the loss of control less scary.
Lotus F1 has been working with managed services provider Avanade since 2012 to implement Microsoft Dynamics AX, as part of a wider business transformation process.
In the past, different departments such as aerodynamics, design, manufacturing, race engineering, finance, HR, sales and marketing all operated in their own environments with their own tools, and Lotus F1 had to spend a lot of time developing interfaces between applications.
However, Dynamics is an integrated system that provides an end-to-end view, so if someone in one department comes up with a concept, IT can follow it all the way through the process of approvals, purchasing, buying materials, making the parts, sitting in stores and going into cars.
“Our application strategy focuses on the tools that we use and the fact that we've standardised on .NET – making sure that we embrace the latest methodologies so that we don't get left too far behind,” said Hackland.
“Our strategy says that we won't replace an application just because it's got the tag 'legacy'. There's a couple of apps that we're using on Java that would have taken 200 man days to re-code in .NET, but for no additional benefit, so I'm not prepared to spend that effort on it.”
Research recently conducted by Avanade reveals that 49 percent of enterprises do not have a formal application strategy. This can result in reduced productivity (67 percent), employee frustration (63 percent) and decreased customer satisfaction (45 percent).
Overall, Avanade predicts that the cost to UK businesses of not having an application strategy is £1.8 billion per annum.
“As an organisation, it's important to look at how you can open up the data in your data centres to these more modern applications,” said Paul Veitch, director of application development at Avanade.
“If you look at legacy mainframes, how do you allow your end users to consume those applications and that data in a way that they can use it on the road or they can use it in a spreadsheet or they can use it in an application where they can explore it in a way that you'd never thought of.
“It's about saying, yes, you can have this data but the quid pro quo for you having that data is you connect your spreadsheet to us and we can audit what you're doing with the data and therefore we can make sure that we help you.”
One of the main concerns for Lotus F1 is ensuring that the company is not breaking any software license agreements - and also that licenses aren’t being duplicated in different departments. If anyone triggers an order for software or hardware, Microsoft Dynamics will flag it up and IT will get involved in the authorisation process.
Protecting intellectual property is also a concern, and the company does not allow employees to use any internet-based FTP sites, such as Dropbox, because they are not considered to be secure enough.
Eventually Hackland hopes to gain control of the data in such a way that it does not matter where it is or what device it is on, but his experiments with digital rights management (DRM) in the past have failed to solve the problem, because the user base found it difficult to use.
However, he said that there have been huge advances in DRM technology since Lotus F1 first put its solution in, and he is starting to look at the new generation of solutions to see if there is anything that could really help.
“People will go behind your back, but at some point they’re going to need your help, and what you can’t be is the sulky teenager in the corner who says: you went and did that without asking me, I’m not going to help you. That’s your opportunity to show them why it was important originally,” said Hackland.
“When something absolutely critical goes down, or the only person who knows how to develop that thing leaves the team, that’s usually when we get engaged and asked to help. That’s when we can bring it in and explain why our processes don’t add as much time as they think, but also why they’re important for the team.”