What is the meaning of excellence?

When making awards for "excellence", it's vital to have some kind of definition of this slippery term. In search of what excellence means in the IT context, Computerworld asked some Computerworld Excellence Awards judges and a spokesperson for the Computer Society

When making awards for "excellence", it’s vital to have some kind of definition of this slippery term.

In search of what excellence means in the IT context, Computerworld asked a number of the Computerworld Excellence Awards judges and a spokesperson for the Computer Society – those who have had to wrestle first-hand with the concept and with recognising it in other people and organisations.

Benefit to the user and other stakeholders looms large in their definitions, as do professional standards of conduct and ethics.

Director architectures at the Cardinal group, John Ascroft:

“In the category I was judging, CEO Excellence in IT, we were looking for innovative and state-of-the-art IT developments that at the same time moved the business forward, and clearly benefited the various stakeholders.

"That to my mind sums up excellence. It doesn’t matter if your application is none too flash, providing it brings business benefits.”

Managing director Helios Communications, Adele Dimopoulos, judging excellence in Internet Commerce:

“Excellence in the e-commerce world is providing something useful and easy to use. It’s too easy to make flashy toys in this [Internet] business, but an excellent development is one with a powerful business use to the company that built it and to the market that it was built for.

"A focused and highly functional system is what I was looking for as evidence of excellence. Easy-to-use means a good straightforward user interface, a simple solution to what may be a complex problem.”

CIO Saturn Communications, Jenny Mortimer, judging IS Manager of the Year:

“Excellence is a mixture of things: innovation, strength of purpose and focus. It’s not just having ideas, but having a long-term vision, and the will to make it happen.

"It must incorporate not only technology, but benefit to the business, and build up the people involved. While focus is important an excellent operator should also have a breadth of outlook.”

Business manager NZ Computer Society (not a CWEA judge) Garth Edwards:

“Excellence starts from a foundation of having the skills and applying them honestly. Some useful parameters are in the Society’s code of ethics and its preambles.

"This says the IT professional ‘will use his/her special knowledge and skills with integrity and loyalty’ to benefit the client of IT development. That client is less likely to be an employer and increasingly likely to be the public at large. Both we and the Australian Computer Society have changed in that direction; the emphasis is on the public interest.

“That describes professionalism, which must be a part of excellence. Excellence is a continued development of that against a recognised benchmark. Our ‘flag’ is ‘inspiring computer people to professional excellence’, but that skirts the question of how to measure excellence.

"The British Computer Society last year developed a 'structure model' that seeks to define best practice for all roles in IT, and evaluate competence and excellence in each on a scale from 0 to 10. The model has been adopted in New Zealand organisations like Inland Revenue.”

Consultant Expert Knowledge-based Systems, Andrew Mason, judge of Excellence in Government IT:

“In the spirit of the Awards, my criteria would include the following (not in any particular sequence):

  • Provide real and measurable benefits to the business, as defined and confirmed by the management of the business. This criterion includes alignment with strategic directions, involvement of user personnel, support from senior management and any other measurement that says 'this is not just an IT ego trip'.
  • Consult widely with those affected, both inside and where applicable outside the business, causing minimal disruption to all of them during implementation.
  • Know in advance how much time, effort, money and equipment will be required and don’t exceed these. These objectives of budget and time management, are often summed up simply as ‘on time, within budget’.
“I prefer my definition, as it includes the magic words ‘in advance’ - this overcomes the problem of retrospective budgeting, which seems to afflict many projects.”

"Project-related criteria are only part of the picture. Excellence must also cover on-going activities - where IT provides the expected service, day in day out, reliably and without dramas.

“Another very important measure relates to staff management, either full-time or on contract. An excellent manager recognises good work, actively assists where the quality of work is not so high, and ensures that all personnel continue to develop their skills and knowledge to mutual benefit.

“Finally, value for money is essential. To a great extent this is a subjective criterion, but comparative figures between organisations can also be used very often. It can also be defined in terms of satisfaction on the part of those in authority.”

Supply Chain Consulting’s Peter Fletcher, judging excellence in IT for enterprise resource planning:

“In the area of ERP, I can’t say we found real excellence, though the winner came pretty close to it. What we saw was good, but we in New Zealand IT need to do better.

“Excellence is a successful project, which is accepted by the users, meets its cost justification and is delivering the proposed benefits. Excellence is delivering something that makes the client and the end-user happy with what they’ve done; it gives them the feeling they’ve done the right thing.

"Excellence is delivering on promises, and delivering more than what was promised.”

Managing director Eagle Technologies, Trevor Eagle, judge of Overall Excellence in the Use of IT:

“Excellence is professionalism; the ability to proffer solutions that truly help the customers of the organisation and add value for them. Excellent IT rewards all stakeholders in a company. The level of esteem a development gets from its stakeholders is the acid test of excellence – and the customer is the most important stakeholder

“Excellence has to be maintained by surveying customer reception on a regular basis. There should be an interface between the supplier and customer at all levels from top management to the coalface, and genuine regular measurement.

“Everyone in the organisation, from managing director to storeman, should strive to be the best at what they do. Peer recognition is an important part of this. Employees can be asked to nominate one of their number for conspicuously good performance.

"Eagle Technology has a ‘supporter of the month’ and ‘supporter of the year’ award for its employees, voted on by their peers.”

CEO of consultancy Innovus, Donna Hiser, judging CEO IT Vision:

“In a general sense I would define excellence as being outstanding in every regard — so something can’t be excellent if it overruns its budget or is not fit for its purpose.

"A Rolls Royce is only excellent if it is within your budget and fit for your purpose. A bicycle can be excellent if it is just what you need, does the job really well and doesn’t break down.

“In the context of CEO IT Vision, we were not necessarily looking for the whizziest technology, but rather excellence in the implementation of a business strategy within which technology formed a critical component. Our winner could have spent more money on technology, but didn’t because it wasn’t necessary.

"What they have implemented is outstanding in terms of positioning their organisation for the future, understanding and acceptance by the stakeholders, integration with a clear business change process, execution with speed and purpose.”

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