What makes a great application owner?

Application owner or application product manager roles are increasingly common in many organizations and these roles play a critical part in application rationalization efforts. Organizations fill these roles with staff from a diverse range of backgrounds including enterprise architecture, business analysis, application development and business operations.  In some cases, it is not a discrete role, rather an additional responsibility for an individual staff member or group of staff members.  However the role is organized and structured, it is important both in terms of accountability for the application as well as defining and delivering the application's direction and value add.  So what are the key skills or characteristics that makes this role successful? What are the knowledge domains, behavioral characteristics and aptitudes that differentiate high performers in this role?

 
There are four primary areas of domain knowledge (with knowledge defined as familiarity, awareness and understanding gained through experience or study) that can inform the profile of domain skills your organization may require:
- Technical knowledge —how does this application work and what are its effects?
- Business-specific knowledge —what makes our organization work operationally and culturally?
- Process knowledge — which processes fuel our organization and its competitive edge?
- Industry sector knowledge — which forces, markets and models characterize our industry sector.
 
Allied with this is a set of behavioral characteristics that can differentiate superior performance in the role. It is not that high performers do more of the same things, rather they do different things more often, more thoroughly and in a wider variety of situations.  The type of behavioral characteristics that can be relevant to the role include: Focusing on stakeholders, thinking conceptually, supporting teams and colleagues, negotiating and consensus building, communicating clearly and driving change.
 
Application ownership is not for the faint of heart. Progress can often be contentious and dealing with ambiguity can be commonplace.  Competency in the role comes with insight and perspective about how the organization and stakeholders behave.  Application ownership entails a detailed understanding of how stakeholders use, manage and analyze information from the application.  Key tasks may include: 
- Ensure the application is relevant to the environment, stakeholders and issues your organization is dealing with. 
- Ensure the application meets the usability requirements of users, stakeholders, customers/citizens and external partners.
- Ensure the application provides accurate information and helps render competitive differentiation, where appropriate. 
- Ensure the application is compliant with all legislative requirements.  
- Drive change, organization-wide where appropriate and ensure processes, application interrelationships and entities are seamlessly integrated with the organization's broader environment.  
- Raise application effectiveness and performance by strategizing options, deciding on actions, communicating decisions and taking action. 
- Design application measurement, assessment and quality improvement programs.
 
In practice, high performance application owners display some of the following aptitudes:-
- They are visible: They are known by people outside the conventional reporting structure as the go-to person for the application they are responsible for.
- They create consensus-based decision making: They are resourceful at assembling the information and people to make decisions.
- They communicate well: They conveying information meaningfully, responsibly and with accountability.
- They collaborate well: They can shape and contribute to the outcomes of widely distributed groups.

Comments

It would be better to focus

It would be better to focus on services instead of applications.

Thank you for the feedback

Dear Osama

Thank you for the feedback - you make an interesting point. Are applications better viewed as application services? Is the application superfluous and it is only the service that matters? For that matter - is a house a house or is it a provider of domiciliary services?
Different organizations will have different ways of defining services, applications and application service. The key factor is that there is agreement on the nomenclature and definitions across the organization.

Best Regards,
Alan Mac Neela

IT Product Ownership Doesnt Work

I appreciate the article, but IT Product Ownership is a bad concept no matter how well it is run. Our enterprise realized after 10 years of taking this approach that our managers become shills for a vendor and keep a product-oriented mindset, rather than focusing on the service and solution provided. For that reason, we're taking a different approach.

Thanks for the feedback

Dear Brett,

Thank you for the feedback. The scenario you describe is not always uncommon unfortunately. The key difference is the focus on stakeholder and customer outcomes. High performance application owners have an often maniacal single-mindedness on driving stakeholder exuberance. This aptitude can healthily offset any possibility of vendor bias.

Best Regards,
Alan Mac Neela

Alan, thanks for the

Alan, thanks for the article.

Having been an 'application' owner, I agree with Osama that it is more useful to operate on the basis of 'service ownership', with applications as vehicles for delivering services. The term itself isn't as important as the higher level of abstraction, which shifts the focus towards delivery by whatever means make best business sense, including e.g. outsourcing. Best wishes, Ron.

Thank you for the feedback

Dear Ron,

Thank you for the feedback. You raise an interesting point about the application service delivery model. For example, is service ownership different in an outsourced or cloud-based delivery model? In an outsourced or cloud-based delivery model is co-ownership the optimal approach? Great questions to consider - look out for my next blog posting on them!

Best Regards,
Alan

Training And Product Evangelism

Alan:

This is a great post. You hit on a truly important topic and cover it well. As an application owner myself, I think another critical component of the position consists of training skills and product evangelism. In many cases, applications such as requirements management platforms for SDLC are not sufficiently user friendly that they can be easily mastered by relevant users such as business analysts. Training skills, and corresponding product evangelism skills are critical to succeeding in the role. I, for example, have trained hundreds of users on Blueprint Requirements Center, in addition to defining the parameters of how the application will be used within the organization and managing corporate communications about its usage. As you say, it's a highly visible role and requires a unique skill-set. It's also a challenging position because Application Owners typically report into a specific department (such as Business Analysis, for example), even though the application affects a large part of the enterprise and application owners need to juggle the needs of their department in relation to those of other departments and stakeholders, but are fundamentally bound by the reporting constraints of their own specific position.

Thank you for the feedback

Dear Arnal,

Thank you for the feedback. You make a great point about training - application owners are in a great position to influence the perception of users and other stakeholders through training. I think one of the keys is to transfer knowledge to non-IT stakeholders as well. Knowledgeable business stakeholders can be some of the greatest supporters of an application owner. This type of support can help an application owner traverse the wider organizational structure more easily despite the reporting constraints you refer to.

Best Regards,
Alan Mac Neela