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10 July 2007

Breadth-first IT management

By Andrew Clifford

We make IT hard because we get into too much detail too soon. We need a broad but shallow approach to IT management.

In computer science, searching algorithms can be defined as depth-first or breadth-first. Loosely speaking, depth-first gets right into the detail of one area first, and then if it does not find what it is looking for, moves on to the next. Breadth-first looks across all areas, and then works its way down gradually.

Something similar happens in IT management. We constantly suffer from information overload, and I think this is because we attempt depth-first IT management. We get into too much detail too soon, rather than standing back and looking more broadly at the problem.

As an example, what should we do to make IT more responsive?

  • A server administrator might recommend symmetric multiprocessing systems and VMware virtualization to allow changing business volumes to be accommodated easily.
  • A designer might recommend SOAP, .Net and web services that allow existing functionality to be recombined to support changing business process needs.
  • Support staff might recommend tools to analyse the cyclic complexity of legacy systems to identify candidates for preventative maintenance.
  • An IT personnel manager might recommend competency frameworks for multi-skilled resources and strategies for flexible sourcing.
  • An enterprise architect might recommend mapping the whole of IT to the TOGAF framework to identify areas for improved responsiveness.

No wonder we suffer from information overload. No wonder we have a business-IT communication gap. Every part of IT has a different and detailed way of fixing the problem. We need a broader, less detailed assessment that identifies the real priorities, and does not divert attention and resources to the wrong parts of the problem.

It is really hard to find good, impartial, high-level information on the web.

To support system governance, I have been putting together a new website,, with one page summaries across the breadth of IT management topics. This has been much harder than I thought it would be. It is hard to find source material. Most information on the web is too detailed, too biased toward a particular product, or not based on real, practical experience. It is hard to draw out the key insights, and keep away from personal or commercial bias.

The hardest thing of all is to have the confidence to write only a summary. I worry that readers might think I do not know any more. I worry that readers might think I am patronising. Our attachment to detail is very ingrained. Having tried to write some, I understand why broad, high-level information about IT management is so hard to come by.

This is an important issue for IT. We focus too soon on one solution. We drown ourselves in detail. We need to learn to look more widely. We need to value the generalist mindset and the concise summary, without undermining the valuable contribution of the specialist.

We need depth in IT, but we need breadth first.

Next: IT process definition


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