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13 May 2008

Test-driven IS strategy 2: principles

By Andrew Clifford

IS strategy is much more practical when it is based on a description of what good IS looks like.

Test-driven development gives benefits of efficiency, clarity, risk reduction, speed and communication. The key to these is to focus on what is required and how this can be verified, before looking at how it can be achieved. This same principle can be applied to IS strategy.

This idea is deeper than it may seem. In any situation, you can build one of two different types of theory:

  • An explanatory theory, which describes how a thing works. The aim of an explanatory theory is to understand the parts of a thing and how they are related, and to use this understanding as a guide to achieving objectives.
  • An evaluative theory, which does not describe how a thing works, but describes what a good thing looks like. You can evaluate against this description, and use this as a guide to achieving objectives.

Evaluative theories work well because they are easy to define. They are also more rigorous because they can more completely cover requirements.

Going back to test-driven development, it is nearly impossible to validate that a design correctly meets all requirements. It is possible, however, to define a set of test cases which perfectly reflect requirements. Test-driven development is not a nice-to-have to make testing easier. It is a development technique that achieves a closer fit to requirements at lower cost.

In a complicated situation, like overall strategy, the advantages of evaluative theory are even greater. It is impossible to build a complete explanatory theory of how to achieve IS strategy (you would need to define exactly how everyone should act in all situations). But you can define a complete evaluative theory.

Despite this, our current approach to IS strategy is based on explanatory theory. We try describe how people should work (processes), how they interrelate (organisational structure), how the technology is designed (architecture), and so on.

Adopting an evaluative approach to IS strategy has many advantages:

  • It is much easier, and much more rigorous, to represent IS strategy as required outcomes, than it is to define the required processes, organisational structure, architecture, and so on.
  • It allows for variety in management. A strategy expressed as outcomes can apply across multiple IS organisations, but a strategy expressed as processes, organisation and architecture can not.
  • It is easier to stick to the chosen direction. Evaluation keeps the organisation on track, and stops it being constantly diverted by the "next big thing".
  • It is easier to make changes to the strategy, because changes can be defined independently of their implementation.

An evaluative approach to IS strategy is not a nice-to-have to control the IS organisation. It is not part of IT audit. It is a fundamental technique for IS management, a better way of defining and executing strategy, a better way of meeting requirements at lower cost. It turns strategy from worthy words in a document to a practical tool for setting and achieving objectives.

Next week I will outline the techniques required to build and benefit from an evaluative model of IS strategy.

Next: Test-driven IS strategy 3: implementation


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