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16 June 2009

What's really going on 4: putting it all together

By Andrew Clifford

The combination of shared understanding of IT, long-term proactive management and evaluative theory is a powerful tool for addressing the problems and opportunities of IT.

Over the past three weeks I have written about how management of people, process and technology is not sufficient, and many IT problems and opportunities are not addressed.

I have suggested that structuring management around whole systems provides a useful common viewpoint. The remaining parts of this mental jigsaw are long-term proactive management and evaluative theory.

We know that it is cheaper and easier to be proactive: to prevent problems rather than fix them, and to grasp opportunities for improvement in a timely fashion.

To give some IT examples, it is cheaper to manage IT systems so that they are useful for longer, rather than to let systems decline quickly and replace them frequently. It is easy to keep systems well-documented, testable and well-maintained, but very hard to recover them once they start to decline. It is easy to plug occasional vulnerabilities in otherwise secure systems, but difficult to implement comprehensive security on insecure systems.

In IT, we find long-term proactive management very hard. It is hard to make sense of everything that is going on across all the systems, and to identify, prioritise and justify the interventions that are needed. Proactive management is at best piecemeal. Inevitably we do not address all of the issues, and costs and risks increase dramatically.

This is where evaluative theory really helps.

You can base management on one of two types of theory. You can use an explanatory theory which describes how the people, processes and technology must be arranged, and then execute on that management. This is effective for common tasks such as project delivery and day-to-day operations. However, this approach requires both management effort to define and ongoing resourcing to execute. It is not suitable for the occasional, discretionary, responsive activities that proactive management demands.

An evaluative theory does not explain how things will be done, but describes what a good thing looks like. It is much easier to define an evaluative theory, and you do not need to do very much in order to manage. Assessment against an evaluative theory quickly identifies and prioritises what needs to be done. Because it looks at outcomes rather than the detail of implementation, an evaluative theory is much easier for a non-specialist to understand.

The combination of evaluative theory and a system view is very powerful. Instead of IT being a fragmented and mysterious complex of people, processes and technology, IT becomes a set systems, each with a set of understandable outcome measures or "qualities" (which is why we call this approach system quality management). This gives insight to make effective, justifiable recommendations for proactive management that can make a significant difference to IT.

What's really going on in IT? We don't have the management disciplines that we need to manage IT effectively for the long term. Our management of people, processes and technology is fragmented and inward-looking. We can fix this. Combining a system view (that everyone can understand) with evaluation (that identifies what needs to be done) gives the clarity and justification that we need to manage IT effectively for the long term.

Next: Opera Unite - Dawn of a new era?

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