Standardizing System Lifecycle Processes

The acquisition, planning, implementation, support, and retirement of IT applications, referred to collectively as the system lifecycle, is often one of the largest areas of IT spending for an organization. The standardization of system lifecycle processes as an efficiency lever focuses on achieving enterprise-level delivery consistency across all phases of the lifecycle. In addition to providing a framework for efficiently managing individual systems-related work, a standard system lifecycle management approach can provide organization-wide visibility into system-related resource utilization as well as financial and project status.

A standardized system lifecycle management approach enables an organization to fully leverage knowledge, skills and resources effectively across an organization’s entire IT systems investment portfolio. Standard processes also help focus efforts on key spending areas to achieve process improvements, efficiencies, and controls in the shortest timeframe. A unified, enterprise-wide management approach to the system lifecycle also helps position the IT organizations as a well-managed agent of innovation within an organization while helping leverage IT industry best practices to the maximum extent possible.

To achieve efficiencies through standardization of the system lifecycle, organizations typically focus their efforts in five major areas:

  • System investment approval and initiation

  • Planning and project management

  • The software development lifecycle (SDLC)

  • Requisition and procurement

  • Ongoing system support

By standardizing each of these processes and coupling the effort with other initiatives associated with improving IT efficiency or effectiveness, organizations frequently move closer to achieving their overarching goals of improved efficiency, increased ability to leverage system and human resources, better alignment of systems with business objectives, and improved ability to manage IT as a whole.

System Investment Approval and Initiation

System investment approval and initiation processes are typically engineered to provide consistency across all IT chartering activities within an organization and help ensure that all non-operational IT support activities are formally approved before investment begins.  The creation or enhancement of any existing chartering processes provides a stronger focus on project-oriented development efforts which, without appropriate chartering processes, are frequently treated and managed similarly to operational activities. System investments should be approved and funded based on explicit information contained in the charter for that project, including:

  • Defined project scope, general requirements, and sponsorship.

  • Estimates of required resources and effort, technical architectures, milestones, and anticipated business benefits.

  • Estimates of expected ROI and/or non-quantifiable benefits as well as total cost of ownership.

In efficient organizations, charters become the basis for achieving IT and line of business buy-in and approval, and act as the central point of reference for budgeting and forecasting.  Any other organizational requirements for investment funding, such as those required by general organizational leadership or an organization’s finance and accounting functions, should be aligned so that existing efforts are enhanced and complemented rather than duplicated.

Planning and Project Management

Planning and project management processes are typically established or enhanced to implement rigorous controls around systems investments as well as provide increased visibility and accountability for system-related projects.  A centralized planning and project management (PPM) function helps establish a set of common system development and support tools and methods used by all system efforts to oversee the project. This typically includes both the development and operational components. PPM functions are typically responsible for:

  • Managing reporting and tracking of work in progress for all IT projects.

  • Coordinating internal and contractor teams to manage and schedule project efforts.

  • Working with any Operations Management functions to ensure an appropriate level of preparedness and support for new/revised systems and promotion of releases into production.

  • Ensuring all project documentation is complete and up-to-date.

  • Helping coordinate user involvement from requirements gathering through user testing to promote benefits realization.

Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC)

Given the significant and continuous investment most organizations make in custom software-based systems, a well-engineered development approach along with the ability to leverage outputs for multiple initiatives is critical to increased efficiency. Most efforts to standardize the development activities within the systems lifecycle include:

  • Defining common SDLC paths and standardized environments for all development efforts.

  • Leveraging a consistent project planning framework including standard templates so that project planning and resource estimation is consistent across different development groups.

  • Implementing or adopting common, platform-independent tools, eliminating the cost of buying/building/maintaining multiple tools as well as making it easier for development efforts and outputs to be leveraged across multiple groups or systems.

  • Developing IT coding, user interface, documentation, and terminology guidelines.

Typically, even with these components in place, each development team may evolve specific standards appropriate to their systems and technologies within the broader guidelines established. Additionally, provisions are typically made for emergency bug fixes or other situations which require immediate action, so that the processes themselves do not limit the ability of the organization to react quickly to requirements.

Requisition and Procurement

Efficient organizations typically implement streamlined, centralized requisition processes to provide visibility into organizational spending at a detailed level, as well as provide appropriate controls that ensure a standardized and efficient operating environment.  To achieve significant efficiency in this area, an organization will ideally:

  • Centralize and manage all technical procurement within the guidelines and policies of the broader organization’s acquisition policies and processes including leveraging the mechanics of existing acquisition functions provided by the organization. The goal is to inject control and specific technical acquisition expertise rather than duplicative procurement functionality.

  • Introduce a strategic sourcing discipline, seeking to leverage volume discounts wherever possible.

  • Manage all hardware, software, and service vendor relationships as well as existing contracts or purchasing vehicles.

Any asset management functions within the organizations should track all existing hardware and software assets and would work closely with contract management functions to leverage the organization’s purchasing power. Additionally, a single purchase requisition system should be utilized and interfaced with project tracking and budgeting systems for even greater activity and spending visibility across the system lifecycle.

Ongoing System Support

To ensure consistently high end-user satisfaction while minimizing the level of effort associated with supporting a given system, a standard process for administering end-user support should be instituted.  To achieve efficiencies in this area, organizations typically:

  • Clearly define responsibilities for support tiers and escalation procedures and ensure their communication throughout the organization.

  • Analyze the nature of help desk activity and other support efforts to improve support and provide information for potential system enhancements or fixes.

  • Make technical knowledge management a priority across systems and maintain and catalog documentation in a consistent manner.

  • Prioritize opportunities to facilitate user self-service wherever practical.

  • Develop Service Level Agreements (SLAs) in conjunction with the users and use SLAs as part of overall support performance reviews.

  • Develop and monitor metrics as part of periodic performance reviews and recognition programs for related IT functions and vendors.

  • Implement performance management across all aspects of support, e.g., root cause analysis, continuous process improvement, trend analysis, recurring problem analysis, etc.

  • Develop comprehensive change management processes which comprise various support requirements for all system implementations, including required training for staff, required documentation, and knowledge base artifacts.

Of equal importance to support processes is the creation of customer relationship processes, including service level, performance monitoring, and reasonable charge-back mechanisms.  These other processes act as critical integration points helping ensure the IT organization is closely aligned with the requirements of its customers.

Other Considerations

Similar to centralization activities, standardization of systems lifecycle processes should seek to minimize disruption to the end users of any existing systems. As standardization efforts move forward, key line of business leaders who rely upon the organization’s systems should be engaged early and often throughout the process to help achieve and maintain buy-in.

To a large extent, the standardization of system lifecycle processes results in a significant enhancement to a culture of accountability within and across systems-related IT functions. Efforts should involve and rely upon collaboration with the organization’s IT resources to identify, coordinate, and implement any process and system changes and if required, organizational changes. System process definition or revision efforts typically require a concerted effort and dedicated time from core IT resources as well as the buy-in of key existing vendors.  Each process should be reviewed, defined, and communicated prior to implementation.

Sequencing Systems Lifecycle Standardization

Organizations that implement standardized system lifecycle processes typically appoint functional leadership over enterprise-wide systems lifecycle processes prior to the development and adoption of newly engineered processes.  In addition to a lack of authority and accountability without them, these individuals represent both key architects of the processes as well as the key drivers for their adoption across the enterprise.

Once leadership is established and the tools and processes in place for organization-wide adoption, it is important to implement the appropriate controls to ensure adherence is required – this requires that processes be explicit and that mechanisms exist to determine compliance, handle exceptions, and that consequence exist for lack of compliance.

Additionally, continuous improvement of the systems lifecycle processes is almost always required. Each broad process as well as specific activity processes are typically best refined over time and should evolve in both efficiency and effectiveness as they are used in practice.