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30 August 2005

Align systems to strengthen ownership

By Andrew Clifford

Strong business ownership is critical to the success of IT. But IT has made meaningful ownership impossible. To make ownership possible we need to stop sharing systems and data, and restructure systems so that they align to the structure of the business organisation.

Today is a special anniversary for me. I started writing these newsletters exactly six months ago, to explore and share ideas on improving the value from IT. It's interesting to look back and see how these ideas have developed.

When I started, I could see a value in debunking IT, and not seeing it as a magical force for business transformation. I could see that IT was full of supply-side pressures that add cost, both overt commercial pressures and more subtle pressures from internal experts. And I had a vision that we could replace many custom builds or package implementations by wider use of more general-purpose applications.

I still think these are relevant. But over the past six months, another theme has grown in my mind.

I have become convinced that many of the problems in IT stem from systems which span multiple areas of responsibility and which are not clearly owned.

This comes from:

  • Legacy systems which have been modified for multiple purposes.
  • Enterprise-wide systems, often brought in to replace legacy systems. These attempt to cut through the inefficiencies of the business organisation, but have also made systems more distant and unowned.
  • IT-lead design improvements. Seeing the portfolio of systems as shared business components plugged into a common infrastructure may make sense technically but does not help build good business ownership.

This makes change hard:

  • System change is hard. Shared systems tend to grow large because they cover multiple responsibilities, and complicated because they need to cope with multiple roles. Strongly owned systems are smaller, simpler and easier to change
  • Business change is hard. Change to business processes and organisation needs to be mirrored in systems. The size of the systems makes this hard, and leads to knock-on effects elsewhere. Changing shared systems with no clear ownership can be a political nightmare. But with separate and clearly owned systems, changes to business processes and structures can be supported by focussed modifications to small systems and by integration.

Over the past six months, I have become increasingly convinced that it is IT's drive for shared systems that is at the root of many of IT's problems. We need different design rules that enforce that systems are separate, and clearly ownable. Each system should support a single area of management responsibility. Hand offs of responsibility between different areas, flows of meaning, and flows of control, should be represented explicitly by system interfaces. We need to move away from the idea of shared systems, shared data, and shared components.

These design rules don't guarantee that systems will be owned, but they will remove the main barriers which currently make meaningful ownership impossible. We need to shift our emphasis from making IT easy for IT, to making IT easy for business.

Next: Shared database? I wouldn't dream of it

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