My previous post introduced the topic of IT Organizational Clarity, discussed common symptoms arising from a lack of Organizational Clarity, and suggested two dimensions through which clarity can be assessed and improved:

  1. Bounding scope by defining “IT Capabilities” at an appropriate level of granularity. (Units of analysis).
  2. Defining meaningful and assessable characteristics for IT Capabilities. (Means of assessing and improving).

Note – the ultimate gauge of IT Organizational Clarity is in the ‘health’ of the IT Organization and the business results to which it contributes.  However, there are all sorts of demand-side complexities in assessing these things, so for now I will focus on the notion of capability maturity as a worthy proxy for and predictor of end results and the ability to continuously improve.

In this and the next couple of posts I will discuss the notion of IT Capabilities and how best to define them.  I will then address the assessable characteristics of IT Capabilities.

What Is an IT Capability?

In order to adequately define an IT Capability, we need to clarify a couple of common terms – Service and Process:


A Service in the context of IT Capabilities is best described as the interface point between a provider and a consumer where value is exchanged.  Services should be defined from the perspective of the consumer.  They need to be ‘discoverable’ and the service interface understood by the consumer.  They need to have clarity on what they do, what they cost, how they are invoked, and how problems are reported and resolved.  The service provider should have a good understanding of the value received by the consumer, as well as the overall quality of the customer experience.  This may comprise both tangible and intangible elements, most of which are ultimately subjective.


A Process is a sequence of interdependent and linked procedures which, at every stage, consume one or more resources (employee time, energy, money) to convert inputs (data, material, etc.) into outputs.  These outputs often serve as inputs for the next stage until a known goal or outcome is reached.


A Capability can be thought of as everything it takes behind the scenes that makes a service possible.  This will include:

  • One or more Processes.
  • Descriptions of the Roles needed to perform one or more of the procedures within a process (e.g., Project Manager, Business Analyst, Relationship Manager).
  • Descriptions of the Competencies needed to perform a given role (what the person performing the role needs to know, e.g., business knowledge, what skills they need, e.g., facilitation, and what behaviors they should exhibit, e.g., results orientation).
  • An adequate supply of competent human resources filling the given roles.
  • Tools and technologies needed to automate or execute necessary processes or procedures.
  • Management systems necessary to ensure the health and performance of the Capability, including funding, organizational will, personal incentives, and so on.

How Many IT Capabilities Should You Have?

This is a tricky question to answer.  First, of course it depends on the mission to be served by a given capability.  But more importantly, this is a question of granularity.  In the heady days of business process re-engineering, I learned that picking the right granularity for an end-to-end process is crucial, and perhaps as much art as science.

I think this question has more to do with the characteristics of and limitations to the workings of the human mind than anything else.  If you end up with, say, 3 IT capabilities, chances are that you are at too high a level of granularity to be really useful in terms of analytical and management discipline.  On the other hand, if you have 12 or more IT capabilities, you are at too low a level.  From my experience, between 7 and 9 is the right number of IT Capabilities to have in a ‘top-level’ IT Capability model.

How Many Levels of Decomposition Should You Go To?

Yes – you guessed it – it depends!  On the basis that you really don’t understand a Capability unless you can see a level of decomposition below it, I think the answer is at least two levels of decomposition are necessary.  Beyond that, it depends on the Capability you are trying to understand or improve.  Consider, for example, the Process aspect of an IT Capability.  Capabilities that are highly procedural, such as those found in IT Infrastructure and Operations, will typically need more levels of decomposition (i.e., more detailed process definitions).  Coincidentally, this is the domain of ITILv3, so you can effectively ‘buy’ process definitions and a process architecture off-the-shelf.

On the other hand, a Capability such as Opportunity Discovery may be more about analytical skills and the magical space between problem understanding and solution definition.  This space is much more about specially-skilled people and specific business domain knowledge rather than sequential, detailed and rigorously controlled processes (as in Statistical Process Control.)

We will pick this up in the next post and look at three different types of IT Capability  – Value Chain Capabilities, Aligning/Governing Capabilities and Enabling Capabilities – and examine the distinctions between these and why the distinctions are important.

Graphic courtesy of MassBay Organization Development Learning Blog

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