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27 March 2007

Long-lived systems: ownership

By Andrew Clifford

Effective owners are vital for long-lived systems. Without effective owners, systems fall off the management agenda and quickly decline into unsupportable legacy.

Owners stop this happening by standing up for systems, and making sure they do not get forgotten. Owners can make the big decisions that are needed to keep systems current, like deciding to take upgrades.

Every system needs two owners: a business owner and an IT owner.

The business owner is responsible for the work that the IT system supports. They can decide if and how to use the system. They care about the system because it helps them do their job.

The IT owner is responsible for how the system is implemented. They can decide what software and technology to use.

Often we are unsure whether we want owners. We do not want one person to have all the control, or take all the responsibility. We want systems to be shared, and we need continuity when individuals move on.

Owners do not have to be individuals, and do not have to be called owners. We can call them contacts, representatives, or stewards. They could be a committee. It does not matter what you call them and who does it, as long as there is a single point of ownership that can effectively represent the system, argue its case, make decisions, and take responsibility for its long-term well being.

Ownership is not the same as project management or service delivery. Project managers deliver change; service managers deliver service. Ownership is different. It is about caring for the system, not about working on it.

Systems are the best focus for ownership. Technology (such as servers or components) is not meaningful across the broader business. Business subjects (such as end-to-end processes or customer segments) do not have a direct IT implementation. Systems link business and technology. Focussing on systems lets business and IT talk about the same things.

It is very hard to establish ownership for systems that are shared across departments. Shared systems are appealing from a design viewpoint and because they make the best use of resources, but these advantages can be dwarfed by ownership problems.

To avoid this, fit systems within the organisational structure, and do not cut across it. If the business chooses to run sales and marketing as two separate departments, then split systems along these lines so that they can be owned. You can maintain a single design view across both systems, but implementing a system across an organisational divide will fail.

There are ways around this problem. If the marketing department just needs sales figures, they could simply be treated as users of a system owned by the sales department. Alternatively, the marketing and sales departments could form a committee to own the system. But you have to do something. Whatever commercial, political or practical issues force two departments to be separate will mean that they can not co-own a system without a definite management decision to bring ownership to a single point.

It can be hard to find business owners. But if all else fails, there is a 100% guaranteed way of finding them. Turn the system off.

Next: Long-lived systems: decoupling

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