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4 September 2007

The alternative reality of IT

By Andrew Clifford

The structures of IT - architecture, organisation, decision making - form an alternative reality which has no meaning across the broader business.

Last week we covered how the structures of IT are a by-product of engineering necessity, not a conscious design to best serve the needs of business. This week I want to cover how these structures affect the way business understands and works with IT.

The simplest example is corporate systems, such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems that are implemented to provide cross-business efficiencies. Nobody clearly owns corporate systems. Although the IT has been consolidated, the business still runs as a series of departments with a degree of management autonomy. The IT structure (corporate system) is an alternative to the business reality (management autonomy).

Whether or not we have corporate systems, we have technology layers that are not owned at all. Who, in business terms, owns the shared database, or the service enablement layer? These are technical solutions, not business concepts. The IT structure (shared layers) simply has no meaning in business.

Sharing IT across management boundaries leads to meaningless couplings. Changes to business activities in one area may require changes to corporate systems or technology layers. This in turn impacts other business areas which are not otherwise related to the business change. The IT structure (which couples through shared layers and systems) is an alternative to the business reality (independent business areas).

Sharing leads to meaningless interfaces. For example, we might build a generic data collection interface to extract data from a service enablement layer. Who, in business terms, owns this interface and is accountable for its correctness? The IT structure (reuse of technical implementation) is an alternative to the business reality (authoritative flows of information and control).

The alternative reality of IT affects the management of IT. We might have two unrelated business changes, both of which require IT changes. Because they share the same technical implementation, and make use of the same scarce technical skills, they impact each other. The IT structure (co-ordinated technical change and making best use of skills) is an alternative to the business reality (independent business change).

Our attempts to manage this alternative reality create further IT-centric structures. We create consolidated IT work plans to balance the multiple work demands on IT. But in most organisations management decisions are to a large extent delegated. The IT structure (centralised IT work planning) is an alternative to the business reality (delegated management authority).

This alternative reality is at the root of misalignment between IT and business. We did not set out to make IT misaligned, but as an accident of engineering necessity we have created structures that are misaligned.

At this stage on our journey to a heretical view of IT, we have seen that the structures that IT creates are based on engineering necessity and that they are misaligned with business.

Next week I will cover how the IT organisation's attempts to manage the complexities of IT further entrench this misalignment.

Next: IT entrenches misalignment


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