Data and the war between Business and IT

Another victim of the war between Business and IT Image source Another victim of the war between Business and IT Image source

Many years ago, I was running the Business Intelligence programme for a Bank that consisted of around 12 projects. I was new to formal project management, and I was new to banking. In fact, I was new to corporate culture, having only been involved with SMEs until that point.

I remember one day my client came to us in a panic as a critical application had gone down and they needed our help in getting it running. Being young and naïve, I agreed – only to be shot down by my boss’ boss; “it’s an End-User Application”, he said in horror “we can’t touch it”!

I went back to my client with the ‘official’ line that as the application (which was called “CLOE”, if I recall correctly) wasn’t on our list of supported applications and so we were unable to help him. I remember the look of shock on his face; “what are you talking about, Charles?” he said, “it’s written in friggin’ Excel – of course you guys can support it”!

I was left in no-man’s-land. Caught on the barbed wire between the Business and IT. Like a hopeless fool, I raised my white flag hoping for one side to give me safe passage – there was none.

CLOE began life many years earlier when a member of the sales team found she was restricted in the amount of detailed information she could record on her clients and prospects in the bank’s CRM. She started to log this information in a spreadsheet, and with some clever use of filters, conditional formatting, and the odd macro, turned it into something which really helped her close business. Her final triumph was downloading data out of the CRM into her spreadsheet for further analysis of clients and prospects giving her insight into cross-selling and up-selling opportunities. It wasn’t long before she was the top of the team in terms of business won (and proof perhaps that sales is more a science than an art)?

A colleague in a different office learned of her success and of the magic of her private CRM, and encouraged her to share it. She did so on the basis that she would also benefit from the additional complexity of redeveloping it to account for a new jurisdiction, and so CLOE’s sister was born. By the time I arrived at the bank, CLOE had been cloned countless times, spawning an entire species of CLOEs. Each lovingly maintained by its owner, fed daily with a diet of clean data, and mutated in some way – a formula change here, a new macro there, perhaps some cosmetic surgery in the form of more conditional formatting.

Until the day my client asked me for help. One day CLOE simply refused to open. Because of the highly distributed nature of CLOE’s DNA, the first instance wasn’t so severe – the user could simply revert back to the last copy that was emailed to them losing perhaps a day, or a week of data. But soon users from all over the sales team found that CLOE wouldn’t run anymore. In some cases the timing couldn’t be worse – on the way to meeting a client, perhaps in front of a client. All that valuable data lost behind a ‘fatal exception’. CLOE’s case looked terminal.

And so, I became a double agent. Smug in my judgement of the stupidity of the business to allow an Excel file to rule their business, but equally appalled by how IT in their ivory tower of process and governance refused to help – I began my quest to cure the disease that befell poor CLOE. In the shadows my team experimented upon her binary code, trying different versions of Excel, different operating systems, different hardware, different user permissions etc. In every case, CLOE would die in the field. Sometimes she would last for just hours, other times for days. We stripped her of her data, wondering if she had just become too fat on information? This didn’t seem to make much difference.

We knew there was one higher authority who could provide enlightenment into the cause of CLOEs cancer. Using unofficial back-channels, we made contact with the Microsoft support team being sure not to involve our Microsoft Account Representative (if he knew of the severity of the CLOE addiction, he surely would have shut down any support and given more fuel to the IT demand for a full CRM upgrade to eradicate CLOE once and for all).

From the moment my client first came to me, to us finding the cure was only a matter of a couple of weeks, but it felt like an eternity. Especially to the business, whose sales team were crippled. During this time, IT were busy preparing their Gantt Charts and Specification Request Documents, rubbing their hands greedily on the thought of the next year’s budget. But life was about to return to normal – we injected CLOE with the magic cure, flown in special package via internal email with a red “!” denoting its importance.

And so, you’re wondering, how did we save CLOE?

It turns out the version of Excel we were using has a limit to the number of different cell formats or styles that can be deployed. Every time a cell is made bold, or with a red background, or with a larger font – that counts against our total. The limit was 4096 and through years of abuse, CLOE had dangerously creeped towards the threshold. One careless slip of CTRL-I or CTRL-U and she would slip into overdose, locking her precious data with her into her comatose state.

And the moral of the story? We need to get IT and the Business to work closer together. Business users shouldn’t feel scared of approaching IT with ideas for workarounds and end-user solutions, and IT should provide sandboxes for business users to experiment. Sometimes the tools we are given simply aren’t good enough, and why should we be critical of users who innovatively hunt for new ways of improving their work?

And most importantly? Don’t use data as the ransom. IT need to be monitoring how data is flowing through an organisation, and if they see situations like CLOE above they should be seeking for ways of helping ensure the data is protected, governed and controlled. For as my client learned, a sales team without data is like a kettle without water – you can give it all the heat you want, but if you do so – you’ll never smell the coffee!

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