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20 February 2007

The limits of IT process management

By Andrew Clifford

Defined, repeatable processes are a major focus of the IT industry. But there are limits to what can be achieved by process management alone.

Successful IT requires a blend of experience, skill and control. Capturing this in processes allows it to be shared, preserved, and improved. This reduces reliance on scarce skills, improves quality, and improves control.

Process management makes a lot of sense. Major IT standards, such as CMMI and ITIL, are based on process management. But there is a downside to IT process management that we need to avoid.

  • Processes take time and add delays. There is a constant tension between the requirement to follow the process, and the need to get the job done.
  • Processes add management overhead. You need management time and effort to define, agree and monitor processes, many of which you use only occasionally.
  • Processes are inflexible to change. Processes are great for managing steady state, but are no good when the steady state is disrupted. For example, if your organisation merges with another one, it takes a lot of effort to bring the processes of the two organisations together.
  • Processes do not stop gradual decline. For example, your processes can make sure that new systems use the latest versions of software, but that does not stop other systems going out of date.
  • Process lapses are missed. If you break the process, so what? You may have controls within the process, but these do not help if somebody has just ignored the process.
  • Processes become bureaucratic. IT needs a lot of specialist disciplines - networks, databases, security, and so on. Every processes needs multiple points for consultation and sign-off. This can become a tiresome formality that diverts attention from managing bigger issues.
  • Processes discourage personal risk-taking. We are never blamed for following the process. We slavishly follow the process and risk failure, rather than be creative and risk blame.
  • Processes do not guarantee a positive outcome. Processes can help, but you can find plenty of problems even in a process-rich environment.

Tacitly, a lot of us who work in IT know this. The benefits of process management can be swamped by bureaucracy and general process paraphernalia. At worse, process management can sap the life from IT.

To get the most from process management, focus on repeatable, standardisable activities, or areas that require a high level of control. For example, support calls benefit from defined processes, but systems analysis less so. Aim for the 20% of processes that cover 80% of the work.

Complement process management with other techniques. Think about organisational structure, and how to retain individual experts and teams. Measure the outcome of projects, and the ongoing state of your IT, independently of measuring processes.

Accept the limits of process management. Do not let your desire to manage quality through processes stop you from measuring outcome. Do not let the need for processes stop you driving for results. And most importantly, never let your enthusiasm for defined processes undermine the value you put on the skills and abilities of your staff.

Next: Make CMMI easier and more effective


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