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11 April 2006

IT stewardship

By Andrew Clifford

To get closer to the business, IT must recognise and promote its role as stewards of the business' IT systems.

Most people in IT work in one of two roles. Either they are involved in the day-to-day delivery of IT services. Or they are involved in IT change to support business change.

Many problems in IT fall down a gap between these roles. This includes risk areas like security and recovery; development issues such as test packs and documentation; lack of support capability; system structure; old technology; and performance and reliability. These are not day-to-day problems, and not business changes.

Some of these problems reflect omissions when systems are first implemented. More often they come about as the business and technology change, and new systems are implemented. Existing systems are left behind or badly patched.

These problems matter. They impact service delivery. They make it hard to support business change.

We find these problems hard to fix. Not for technical reasons -- we know what to do. But we find them hard to manage. They are not day-to-day problems that can be addressed by service delivery. Neither are they business changes. These problems are hard to fix because they fall outside our normal processes for justifying and managing IT work.

To tackle these problems, we need to recognise and promote the IT department's role as stewards of the business' IT systems.

A steward is not an owner. It is someone who is entrusted with the management of another's property. This is exactly the relationship the IT department has with the business' IT systems. The IT department is responsible and accountable for the state of the systems, but does not own them.

This is not a new role for the IT department. It already does this to an extent. But this role is hidden within the service delivery and business change roles, which makes the role difficult to carry out.

Explaining the IT stewardship role helps communicate the need for long-term management of systems. This in turn gives the justification to maintain and improve systems, outside day-to-day service delivery and business change.

IT stewardship does not have to be another division within the IT department. It can be carried out within the existing structure. The important thing is that the IT department recognises and promotes the role. System governance provides an effective focus to define, measure and improve the IT stewardship role.

In IT, we know we need to get closer to business. But we find this hard. We end up using self-referencing arguments like "involve us in business change because we are your partners in business change", which are not convincing.

The best way to get start getting closer to business is to promote the IT department's role as stewards of the IT. This is practical, understandable and relevant. Nobody will disagree with it. Promoting the role, and not hiding it behind service delivery and business change makes the case for doing the role well. Good IT stewardship solves many long-term problems which get in the way of service delivery and business change. Performing all of its roles well is what will really bring IT closer to the business.

Next: System governance: less is more

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