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7 February 2006

System governance needs a framework

By Andrew Clifford

System governance does not need heavyweight methodologies. It needs a lightweight framework of guidance, processes, materials and tools.

I have looked at many methodologies, project management tools, design tools and repositories. Most of these are hard to justify and implement because they take a lot of time, effort and money before you get any payback.

I have been setting up a new company, Metrici, to offer system governance services, and I have been thinking of ways around this problem. Rather than defining a rigorous model of governance, I have been exploring a simple approach based on high-level assessments against standards. Rather than inventing an additional methodology, I have been considering how you can include system governance within existing IT processes, in a way that actually reduces the cost and time of those processes. This is the key to making system governance easy to justify and implement, and so gain the benefits that it can undoubtedly bring.

There is a danger in making system governance simple and accessible. It looks like you could set it up easily on a spreadsheet. Before you try, I want to share some of the complications I have found.

System governance starts with a set of criteria that represent what is important to your organisation about IT systems. You need to limit yourself to a few criteria that really make a difference. A long list of everybody's pet subjects is no use.

You have to define criteria carefully. You need to think what questions to ask to find out about the criteria, and how you would check that the questions have been answered. You need to think about the relative importance of different criteria, and some sort of scoring scheme. You need to explain how the criteria relate to business value and risk. You need to devise rules for when and how you would take corrective action.

Although assessing systems is straightforward, you have to be able to defend your answers. A simple "tick in the box" approach is no good if you want to use your assessment to argue the case for more money, or effectively control an outsourcer. You need to give reasons for each assessment.

You need to be able to turn assessments into summary measures. You need to work out which rules you have triggered, and what sort of corrective action is appropriate.

You will want to repeat assessments occasionally, to see how much you are improving. Your priorities might have changed. You need a way of doing year-on-year comparisons even when the criteria, weighting, scoring schemes and rules change.

Because of these complications, it helps to have some sort of framework for system governance. This framework needs to include guidance in the method, some standard processes, and some materials (criteria and rules) as a starting point. There is a lot of information to manage, so some sort of IT system is worthwhile.

We need to balance rigour with practicality. Heavyweight methodologies and tools will stop you adopting system governance. But you need more than a simple spreadsheet. You need a lightweight framework of guidance, methods, materials and tools that actually bring value from their first use. Only this will give you the justification and impetus to make a success of system governance.

Next: System governance: deciding what is important

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