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23 August 2005

Harry Potter and the alignment of structures

By Andrew Clifford

Project management and architecture will not lead to breakthroughs in the use of IT. Like Harry Potter, we have to learn to visualise, strongly desire and confidently grasp where we want to go.

The Harry Potter books tell the story of the schooldays of Harry Potter and his friends as they learn to become wizards and witches. The simple spells they learn in their early years require careful attention to pronunciation and wand movement. The spells they learn later on, such as apparating (magically moving from one place to another), are much more subtle. They don't require ever more sophisticated incantations and wand movement, but strong visualisation, desire and confidence.

Historically IT has concentrated on delivering efficiency by automating clerical activities. IT has taken a systematic approach to cost justification, project management, analysis and programming. This IT equivalent of incantations and wand movements has been appropriate for building solutions to automate systematic clerical activities.

The focus has now shifted to transforming businesses to escape from historical restrictions, and to grasp new competitive opportunities. This will require much more fundamental changes in business organisation and process. Should IT respond by strengthening its systematic approach, or should it take a different approach?

The answer depends on our view of the relationship between system structure and human organisational structure.

Some think that IT structures can or even should be different from system structures. The role of IT is to build an optimised set of automated processes which overcome the inefficiencies of the human organisation. Future business transformations will require ever more sophisticated and integrated IT systems. These will require a more sophisticated version of IT's traditional systematic approach. We need IS strategic plans, programme management, enterprise architectures and strategic infrastructures.

The alternative is to see that IT only adds value when it is structured around the human organisation. Each system must be clearly owned within the organisation. It adds value by helping its owning department meet their responsibilities to store, process or communicate information. Automated processes that are separate from the human organisation are disruptive nonsense. There is no intrinsic value in more sophisticated IT. There is value in business innovations. These might require sophisticated IT, simple IT, or no IT at all. Future business transformations will require strong visualisation, desire and confidence, but not an ever more sophisticated approach to IT.

These two views are not "right" and "wrong", but alternative orientations that we can choose to adopt. I firmly believe that the second of these views is much more useful.

IT needs to stop searching for ever more perfect IT structures, or more perfect approaches to project management, or better architectures and designs.

Instead, IT needs to restructure systems so that they mirror the human organisation. Businesses can then easily understand and control systems. They can have meaningful conversations about the potential and the limitations of IT. This will build the vision, desire, and confidence needed to transform business and to fully realise IT's potential.

Next: Align systems to strengthen ownership

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