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24 June 2008

Ownership and ownability

By Andrew Clifford

To solve problems of IT ownership, we need to make IT ownable.

Getting meaningful business ownership of IT is a constant battle. It applies at every level: overall business guidance for IT, in projects, down to individual technical decisions.

Before we blame our business colleagues for ownership problems, we should think whether IT is actually ownable. If IT is not ownable, it is hardly surprising that it is not owned.

We need to consider how we run projects and how we run ongoing IT.

Most IT projects are part of broader business changes. These typically define new business processes, often spanning multiple departments.

We tackle ownership in the project management process. We insist on a project sponsor, to provide a coherent view that IT can deliver against.

We use this coherent view to shape the IT we deliver. Often we deliver a new system to support the new business processes.

This is where the problems start. Different departments may have come together to support a business change, but it does not mean that those different departments are going to merged. Although a single system may meet the objectives of the project, it results in something which has no clear owner once the project is complete.

Ongoing, we aim to deliver high-quality services at low cost. We standardise service delivery processes, and create centres of excellence for different technologies.

These also take ownership away. The decisions on ongoing management are embodied in IT processes and organisational structure.

To make new systems ownable, think about how responsibilities will be divided when the project is finished. Ask this at the start of every project, to guide the structure of the solution. It is OK if different departments are going to merge, or stay separate, or form a joint structure to provide ongoing ownership of the IT, but you must know which.

To make ongoing IT ownable, present IT in a way that business colleagues can relate to and can own.

It you talk about IT processes, organisational structure and technologies, then IT is unownable. Instead, present IT as a catalogue of systems that you manage on behalf of the business. This helps you identify owners for individual systems. It also lets you present the technical and managerial strategy of IT as business-focused principles that every system should achieve, such as continuity of service, regulatory compliance and return on investment.

The combination of a system catalogue and a set of principles is a powerful tool. You can break the principles down to technical and managerial requirements, and consider how each system achieves them. This helps you make IT decisions that can be traced back to business decisions. It helps you have meaningful discussions with system owners. See system quality management for some ideas on a suitable method.

To solve problems with ownership, tackle the underlying problems of ownability. As well ownership of projects, make sure that the systems they produce are ownable by mapping them onto organisational responsibilities. Move discussions about ongoing IT management away from IT's processes, organisational structure and technologies, to a catalogue of ownable systems and general principles.

These changes do not guarantee ownership. But they do make meaningful ownership possible, which is a big step in the right direction.

Next: Effective technical evaluation

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