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2 June 2009

What's really going on 2: why we do not succeed

By Andrew Clifford

Consistent, long-term success in IT is impossible because IT management is fragmented and inward-looking.

In IT, we put a lot of effort into managing people, process and technology, but we still have lots of problems and there is huge room for improvement. Why is this?

The problem has its roots in the complexity of IT management. The intricacies and connections between the different groups of people, different processes and different technologies have become so complicated that we no longer understand them fully. We can not see clearly the connection between what we do and business value. Nobody outside IT understands IT, and few of us within IT understand more than our own little corner.

The way we talk demonstrates this. If you ask nearly any IT manager what they do, or what's important, or where they feel the organisation should go in the future, this is expressed in terms of their view of the people, processes and technology of IT. We say that delivering IT projects on time and to budget is vital. We say that enterprise architecture is important. We want shared infrastructure services. We want reusable components. But all these are just parts of how we do IT, and are not the purpose of IT. We have forgotten, if we ever knew, what the purpose of IT is.

This fragmented, internal focus is at the heart of IT's problems.

We find joined-up management impossible. If, for example, we want to reduce cost, we use simplistic management approaches, such as arbitrarily reducing staff or delaying upgrades, which might well increase cost. We can not control IT in any meaningful way. We can not make a true business case for maintaining IT, so systems inevitably slide into unsupportable legacy. We are not confident that we can work with the IT that we have, and so we gamble fortunes on massive, risky, and often unsuccessful replacement projects.

IT is not the only complicated profession. The medical profession has significantly more sub-professions, more complicated procedures, and uses a lot of technology. Why is the medical profession so much better at keeping people going than we are at keeping IT going?

The underlying reason is that the medical profession has a simple and obvious focus for their work: patients. This provides a common basis for measuring value, a common point of reference for all medical professionals, a common focus for all processes, a reason for all use of technology. A cardiologist and oncologist can both discuss the same patient, and have meaningful discussions about the cost of patient care with a hospital manager.

In IT, we do not have such a clear focus for value delivery, around which we can structure our people, processes and technology. We follow, and try to improve, our management of people, process and technology, and hope that by doing so diligently IT will somehow work. But without a consistent value-related focus this inevitably leads to fragmented and inward-looking management that can not succeed.

Next week I will cover how we can succeed if we think of IT differently.

Next: What's really going on 3: thinking of IT differently

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