What makes a great application owner?

Alan Mac Neela
March 1, 2013

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.
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