Spinning Plates

We in the technology program management business are expected to have broadly transferrable skills. This week may be focused on new product development, next month might be all about integrating an acquired portfolio, and next quarter gets gobbled-up with re-org of an existing business unit.

Each of these program types brings a unique mix of excitement, opportunity, and challenge. One of the most fraught program types- and often overlooked for its embedded risks — is enterprise platform integration.

For the uninitiated, enterprise platform integration consists of installing a prefabricated platform, whether it be vended or open-source, into a running business. The associated risk comes from what is there before the integration begins, what is being brought newly into the scenario, and how these two understandings feather together into a successfully integrated whole.

Integration Attributes

To clearly define this dynamic, I like to use a model with three key attributes. Let’s start by understanding what the attributes represent, as well as their interplay.

Platform Functionality

The Platform Functionality attribute encompasses all the features, expectations, and constraints that are baked into the platform from the moment it lands. Every platform comes pre-wired with certain expectations about the relationships of data elements to one another, how it will be leveraged by its users, and the general role it will play in target enterprises.

Every platform comes pre-wired with certain expectations about the relationships of data elements to one another, how it will be leveraged by its users, and the general role it will play in target enterprises

Some enterprise platforms are rigid in their structure, either due to their own structural requirements or because their architecture mirrors some external standard. Think of General Ledger platforms and GAAP. Others are more freeform, allowing for sweeping enhancement that adds value across the platform, such as Content Management Systems like Sitecore and Drupal, or Project Portfolio Planning systems like Planisware.

Regardless, every platform is constructed with certain dimensions that are more flexible than others, as well as areas of functionality that are more fully-formed. Understanding this landscape on your own new platform is important to setting accurate shared expectations about the implementation.

Business Process

Modern business involves the deep interplay of people with their tools. Ensuring that new tools can integrate successfully with existing business processes can be much more difficult than it appears at first blush. Processes that seem straightforward to those who execute them every day often reveal themselves as wildly complex and inter-dependent when unpacked to the extent required for successful integration.

To make matters even more difficult, every platform integration I have ever been involved in has assumed key enhancements to the underlying business process in conjunction with, and enabled by, the features brought to the table by the new platform. So now not only do we have brand new tooling, but we are attempting to integrate that against a business process that is evolving in parallel!

Every platform integration I have ever been involved in has assumed key enhancements to the underlying business process in conjunction with, and enabled by, the features brought to the table by the new platform

Workforce Integration

The most expensive tools are those that are bought but never used. It is imperative that our enterprise platform integration include careful planning about how new functionality and business process will be deployed into the workforce.

There are two main elements to this challenge. First, we must deliver functionality into the hands of real, working resources iteratively enough that we can fold their feedback into our ongoing development efforts. The era of massive releases is over. Second, we need a Change Management strategy that supports those resources as they struggle to integrate these new workflows into their everyday reality. If we don’t make accommodations for the drag associated with change, they will never embrace the opportunities it brings with it.

Spinning Plates

Think of your program as a plate spinning atop a stick. Keeping that plate spinning demands two forces: balance and momentum.

Balance

Keeping the attributes described above in balance throughout the life of the program can be tricky. Internal politics, competing agendas, and progressive elaboration of requirements will all conspire to heap too much emphasis on one attribute at the expense of the others. Combat this entropy by creating strong interdependent bonds between the attributes.

  • You purchased the platform based on its merits, right? So show some deference with your business process enhancements by keeping them high-level and open-minded. “This is where we are trying to get to, how might your platform best embrace this kind of approach”, as opposed to, “Here are the requirements, now fix your platform to match”. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a million.
  • Blind adoption of the process structure inferred by the tools is a recipe for workforce rejection. Business process should primarily drive tool integration, not the other way around
  • Don’t wall-off your business process analysis from those resources with expertise in the platform. They may not be experts in your enterprise, but they absolutely understand their own tech. Include them collaboratively in the theoretical conversations so that they can understand the underlying motivations.
  • Every workforce includes early adopters who are eager to experiment with new ways to make their work more effective, efficient, or scalable. Seek these people out and create structure through which they can bridge the gap between development and real-world usage from the very beginning of the project. Ensure that they can see their feedback being actively integrated into the larger process. The potency of your integrated tools and the support of these champions in its adoption across the enterprise will be directly proportional to their involvement throughout the process.

Too much focus on the platform functionality, at the expense of business process and the target users: out of balance

Diving down the rabbit hole of business process without clear understanding about the capabilities of the platform and feasibility of adoption across the workforce: out of balance

Chasing the whims of early adopters, without dutiful adherence to the goals of the larger enterprise: out of balance

Maintaining equilibrium across these attributes will help keep that plate spinning at the top of the stick.

Momentum

The other key force that keeps your plate spinning is momentum. Thanks to centrifugal force, the faster your team moves, the ‘lighter’ your plate becomes.

  • Keep your enterprise platform integration program moving at speed by chunking the work into multiple, lightweight iterations
  • Limit the complexity the team embraces at any one time, allowing them to move quickly and holistically through the scope
  • Strip the thorniest bits of functionality or business process down to their essential components. This way, the team can focus on the core challenges without being distracted by all the accouterment. Folding that back-in will be easy once the underlying mechanics have been wired

Build your program like paper mache, small swatches of functionality glued firmly together into a larger matrix that grows over time

Agile methodologies provide a terrific structure to keep that plate spinning while delivering incremental value. I particularly like the “Program Interval” concept, from SAFe, bridging the gap between ‘Sprint’ and ‘Program’ in large enterprises that may be wary of Agile.

Regardless of your chosen operational architecture, the point is to keep the scope lean enough at any one moment that the team can execute quickly, embrace real-world feedback, and keep that value stream flowing into the hands of real users.

Connecting the Dots

To the uninitiated, enterprise platform integration might look like the easiest type of program to tackle. After all, “the vendor already built the platform, we just need to bolt it in here!” Closer inspection, however, reveals that the constellation of complexities, expectations, and enhancements makes enterprise platform integration among the most difficult capers a program team will ever attempt to pull off.

Close that gap by clearly defining the three key attributes of Platform Functionality, Business Process, and Workforce Integration, maintaining balance between them throughout execution, and keeping the whole thing spinning quickly enough to gain the benefits of centrifugal momentum. If your team can keep that plate spinning, the rest of the integration will take care of itself.

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Drew Harteveld

Drew Harteveld

BUSINESS PROCESS & OPERATIONAL LEADERSHIP; I organize people, process, and tools to create scalable delivery to the market.