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12 September 2006

Responsibility orientation: strengthen business ownership

By Andrew Clifford

IT needs clear and strong business ownership. We must structure IT so that ownership is possible, and avoid IT structures that weaken ownership.

Last week I wrote about systems orientation. Systems orientation divides IT into separate systems, rather than a layered set of technologies. This makes IT easier to understand and manage.

Systems orientation is a big first step towards reducing IT costs. But you can achieve even greater cost savings if you draw system boundaries in the right places.

Responsibility orientation shows you where to draw system boundaries. Simply put, responsibility orientation says that systems should live within, and not cut across, management responsibilities.

Some would say that this is a backward step. IT should cut across the inefficiencies of the organisation, and create a more efficient business with automated processes.

I disagree. When systems cut across management responsibilities, they run into problems.

  • Indifference. Indifference leaves the definition of the solution to the IT suppliers, either in-house or external. The solution will not be a good fit to business needs, and may be wildly extravagant, or totally irrelevant.
  • Power struggles, using the IT system to pursue political power. This burdens the already difficult business of IT with political issues and organisational change that it can not deliver.
  • Do-gooding. Well-meaning intentions cause havoc by filling projects with requirements that are not backed up by effective sponsorship and leadership.

People make much better decisions about things that they own. They look more carefully at value and cost, and understand impact more clearly. Our IT should be structured to strengthen this sense of ownership, not undermine it. We must design IT to fit within the existing management structures, and avoid IT systems that cut across multiple areas of responsibility.

This reduces costs.

  • Project scope is reduced to what the responsible managers can directly see will add value. Vague and unowned "improvements", that can not deliver value because they are not followed through by management, are avoided.
  • Business change problems are reduced by an order of magnitude. Constraining IT within an area of responsibility makes business change much easier to identify. Business change will be smaller, clearer, and more effectively managed.
  • Traditional IT problem areas, such as testing, migration and implementation, are much simpler if limited to one area of management responsibility.

Responsibility orientation does have challenges. Sometimes we build systems that consolidate multiple responsibilities because this is, in the short term, an easier way to build an integrated system. But in the long term it leads to large unmaintainable systems, where IT imposes unnecessary dependencies between business areas.

A responsibility orientation replaces this with a more decoupled structure. Systems are independent, and pass data that represents real flows of meaning and responsibility. A responsibility orientation leads to a larger number of smaller, more focussed, more richly connected systems.

Responsibility orientation challenges our ideas on how we design IT, and our ideas on the role of IT. But if we can meet these challenges, responsibility orientation can help us provide systems with clear and strong business ownership. We need to learn to be lead by the structure of business, and not pretend we can lead business from the IT.

Next: Value orientation: be realistic

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