The root of all evil
The major problems in IT are the high failure rate of large projects, the shortage of skilled staff, and the ever growing burden of unmanageable legacy systems.
The cause and effect diagram is an informal analysis of the main contributors to these problems.
The diagram illustrates the hypothesis that the underlying technical structures
of IT have a significant impact on the major problems in IT. The diagram
contains a large deal of conjecture. It is not suggested that all parts of the
diagram are necessarily correct, but that the weight of argument suggests that
there is a case for further consideration. Read the root of all evil newsletter for
an introduction to the diagram.
To provide higher quality viewing and printing, the diagram is also available as a pdf document.
Root of all evil, IT problem cause an effect diagram, pdf version
On the diagram:
- Blue represent the impacts on projects.
- Green represents the impacts on staffing.
- Red represents the impacts on legacy systems.
- Grey represents issues that impact more than one area.
If you can not read this, try the pdf version of the diagram.
A narrative for the diagram is given below.
- IT structure is based on historical engineering necessity
Historically IT implementation has been difficult and expensive. IT
technical structures have been built as shared capabilities and layers, to
allow reuse of expertise and to make best use of scarce IT resources.
Misalignment between technical structures and business structures
The structures of IT (shared capabilities and layers) are not the same as the structures used within business (semi-autonomous management hierarchies).
Technical structures are exposed and over emphasised
Technical structures, such as servers, operating systems, databases and middleware, are objects of IT management in their own right. This is because IT implementations expose rather than encapsulate these structures. The emphasis also reflects the professional interests of technical specialists that are required to support the structures.
Highly complicated view of IT
IT structures are hard to understand because they involve multiple layers, each of which is shared for multiple purposes.
High level of coupling across business and technical structures
Because capabilities are implemented across multiple shared layers, there is a high degree of coupling between otherwise unrelated capabilities. For example, unrelated business applications may be coupled through a central database.
No understandable identity for the components of IT
IT is a complex of layers of technology and application software. It is hard to identify all the parts required to support a business function. It is not possible to assign meaningful ownership for most parts of the IT.
IT seen as a nebulous shared endeavour, not information automation capability
Because the technical IT structures overlap multiple business areas, IT is seen as a shared endeavour with broad but rather non-specific value. IT is not seen clearly for what it is - the automation of information storage, processing and communication.
IT organisation adopts leadership role that it can not fully meet
Only the IT organisation can understand the complicated view of IT and the technical structures within it. The IT organisation, either reluctantly or enthusiastically, must adopt a leadership role in which it defines the IT opportunities for the rest of the business.
The leadership role of the IT organisation is strengthened by the emphasis on IT changes and projects, to which it is central.
However, the IT organisation is not ideally placed for a leadership role in business change. There is potential for conflict between a central IT organisation and business units and departments with a high degree of autonomy. The IT organisation does not have a connection to forces external to the organisation, such as competitive activity and the general economy. The IT organisation's position is based on its control of the resource of understanding current IT, rather than a specific qualification for business change leadership. The IT organisation has a vested interest in IT supply, in a way that other specialist departments do not.
IT asset management limited to simple hardware and licenses
The organisation's view of IT assets is limited to simple tangible assets such as hardware and software licenses. The broader assets of IT capability that support business activity are too hard to grasp and their ongoing value is under emphasised.
"Value bet", more IT is better
Because there is little direct understanding of how IT will deliver value, the organisation implements more IT functionality in the hope that it will provide more value.
IT becomes a political battleground
Because it is a shared activity, IT becomes a focus for political power struggles in the organisation. Because of its adopted leadership role, the IT organisation may take a part in this.
Supply-induced demand for IT
The IT organisation has a vested interest in increasing the demand for IT
solutions. Technical specialists have a vested interest in continuing to
emphasise their areas as explicit parts of the solution. Either subconsciously
or overtly this leads to additional demand for IT activity.
Over assertive project culture
IT activity is focussed on step change, rather than incremental change to
maximising value and minimise risk and cost of existing capability. The IT
organisation is positioned as leaders of change. IT projects become the
dominant focus for activity. The project culture defines IT and further
entrenches IT in a leadership role that it can not fully meet.
IT change per se perceived as valuable
IT is seen as having broad but non-specific value. The existing IT assets - the capability that supports business activity - is undervalued. IT is seen as an agent of change more than a basic capability, and IT change is therefore considered of itself valuable as a driver of business change.
Unrealistic project expectations and ineffective control
IT projects are not seen as the focussed incremental provision of functional capability, but are seen as broad endeavours to drive business change, meet political and supply-side agendas, satisfy the drive to run projects and make changes, and implement as much functionality as possible.
These expectations are very broad. They do not provide sufficient focus for effective control of the project, and projects enlarge significantly.
High need for technical specialists
Technical specialists are required to navigate the technical structures, for example to design and administer shared databases.
Difficult and expensive to make changes
IT is complicated and hard to understand. There is a high degree of coupling between the different parts, which makes it difficult to understand everything that needs to be done to effect a change and to address all impacts. There is a shortage of skilled staff which compounds the problem.
No simple management view to prevent decline of systems
There is no simple way for IT to detect and identify what needs to be
proactively maintained to prevent the decline of systems. IT is a sea of stuff,
much of which is no longer current, but it is hard to identify what changes are
critical for the long-term well being of IT.
No justification for proactive maintenance
The major value of IT, that of supporting current business activity, is not well understood, or even if it is understood, not well connected to the structure of IT. It is hard to make a link between proactive maintenance and business value.
Large, expensive projects that are prone to failure
Projects have unrealistic expectations. They are large and tend to grow. They do not have sufficient controls to reduce them in size, or to refocus them as they progress. Their large size and lack of control leads to a very highly failure rate. This is compounded by the inherent difficulty of working with existing systems.
Demand for skilled staff exceeds supply
Skilled staff are in heavy demand, to work on large projects, an ever growing burden of legacy, and to provide the technical skills required to support IT.
Growth in unmanageable legacy
It is difficult to understand what needs to be done to prevent a decline into legacy. When potential actions are identified, they are hard to justify. If they are justified, it is difficult and expensive to make changes. Inevitably, systems decline further until replacement becomes the only option.
We use the term "metadata-driven" to describe IT solutions in which functionality is defined in data. Taking this to the extreme can provide unparalleled levels of speed, simplicity and versatility.
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