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17 May 2005

IT needs new metaphors

By Andrew Clifford

Words control how we think. The builder metaphor is appropriate for IT supply, but not for IT demand. IT needs new metaphors, like surgeon, which emphasise responsibility for outcome and not just delivery.

We use metaphors as a mental shortcut to deal with new situations. But metaphors can become reality and lead to problems.

This is common in politics. The "war on drugs" is an inappropriate metaphor. In a war, anyone who allies themselves with the enemy is the enemy. And so, the war on drugs confuses its victims with its enemy.

IT commonly uses the building metaphor. Creating a new IT system is like constructing a building. Project management, design and development have parallels in the construction industry.

But a strong and appropriate metaphor can leak into areas where it does not apply. The building metaphor is inappropriate for IT demand.

The value of building is in the end product, such as a house or office. The builder does not need to know exactly how the product will be used. Broadly speaking, value is proportional to output. More room is better. Defects are inevitable and therefore deemed acceptable.

From the house or office users' point of view, the builders' perception is reasonably accurate. They must have the house or office. More space is always useful. They don't need or want the builder to care exactly what they will do with it. Defects are annoying, but you can work around them until they are fixed. The supply viewpoint is close to the demand viewpoint.

From the IT users' point of view, the building metaphor is inappropriate. IT systems are discretionary. Small, simple systems are best. IT systems have to be built to meet the specific needs of the users. Defects can completely cripple the system. The supply viewpoint of plans, designs and development, does not match the demand mindset of adding value by supporting business activity.

This mismatched metaphor is the root of many of IT's problems. Often there are demand-side problems, such as a system that doesn't fit business activity or is plainly unusable. The IT response is to manage supply: add more project management controls, rearchitect the system, contract more developers. IT does the only thing it knows - build more - even if the problem lies somewhere else.

Let's try another metaphor - the surgeon.

Surgeons are skilled engineers of flesh and bone. They deal with advanced technology. But their enthusiasm for their work is tempered by a responsibility for the outcome.

A surgeon will not carry out surgery lightly. They wouldn't operate if something can be dealt with by drugs or lifestyle changes. Physiotherapy is used to make sure that the altered "system" is bedded in and working correctly.

Humorous analogies abound.

  • The liposuction of IT is no replacement for the healthy living of operational efficiency.
  • Would you want rhinoplasty from a surgeon who thought it was their job to deliver, and that more was better?
  • Do you feel unattractive to potential partners? Will the implant of a CRM system really help, or do you just need to smile and give a little more?

There are dangers in taking this or any metaphor too far. But IT needs to temper its enthusiasm for supply by a responsibility for outcome. IT needs new metaphors.

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