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29 January 2008

Systemhood

By Andrew Clifford

The concept of systemhood makes IT easy to understand. It helps us see how to do less work.

I started these newsletters with two ideas: reduce IT demand by identifying what we do not have to do; and use a strict definition of IT (the automation of information storage, processing and communication) to help understand the value of IT.

As I explored these ideas, I came across some recurring problems.

  • IT is often misapplied as a business change driver. Big, strategic projects that are intended to drive business change often fail because they are not properly managed as business change projects, and the non-IT parts are not addressed.
  • Most IT management is inward looking. Although we have to manage the efficiencies and effectiveness of supply, these are the wrong viewpoint for reducing unnecessary demand and focusing on value.
  • We undervalue the IT that we have and underemphasise the value of keeping it in good order. We treat existing systems as a dirty canvas on which to paint new projects, rather than as a critical business asset. We do not see the value in simple things that keep systems running smoothly, like testing and documentation.

These problems all relate to the difficulties of understanding IT. We have multiple, competing views of IT: projects, technologies, process, organisational structure. These different views make it impossible to see how IT adds value, or where IT is unnecessary.

  • We can not understand IT value in projects, and so give IT projects objectives that they can not meet, such as leading business change.
  • We have no externally understandable view of IT, so we focus on internal efficiencies.
  • We do not understand what we have, so we can not value it.

To make IT more understandable, I applied an idea from systems integration and system governance.

One critical (and often overlooked) requirement of systems integration is the need to ensure that systems are resilient and easy to change once they are integrated. This can be achieved by defining the boundaries of each system, and making sure that the internals of each system do not leak beyond their boundaries.

System governance is a method for long-term management of IT. To ensure that all aspects of IT are assessed, it requires that all the IT is presented as separate systems.

These approaches stress the need to define systems carefully. Systems are an important, but undervalued, aspect of design. They are a useful, but undervalued, management handle.

This concept of "systemhood" makes IT much easier to understand. It help non-specialists understand IT, without getting bogged down in technical details. It provides a structure that lets us apply a strict definition of IT, to better understand IT value. It helps us control IT. It helps cut through the misapplication of IT, manage IT in a way that is relevant to its users, and value our existing IT portfolios. A strong assertion of systemhood helps tackle excess demand. Systemhood helps you to work less.

Systemhood has developed as one of the main themes of these newsletters. Next week I will consider whether it is a reasonable concept, and where it might take us in the future.

Next: Systemhood's challenging future

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