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10 July 2012

Back to basics: Conflicts

By Andrew Clifford

Identifying areas of conflict opens up debate and helps us explore ways to deliver more value.

Over the past few weeks I have covered what I believe are the most important aspects for minimising your IT estate and IT demand, which is the key to long-term improvements in cost, risk and responsiveness.

I have covered:

  • Focusing on the basic value proposition of IT: automating the storage, calculation and movement of information.
  • Structuring IT so that it is easy to own and to manage.
  • Managing IT proactively.
  • Emphasising the qualities of delivered systems, such as documentation and testing, rather than development speed.
  • Exploiting standards and open source.
  • Using generic applications to reduce short-term and long-term costs.

Individually these ideas might not seem contentious, but taken together they form a controversial agenda. If you were to summarise a typical IT strategy, it would in many respects be the exact opposite:

The organisation will use IS to re-engineer business processes and create new business opportunities. All business data will be held on a single database to ensure a single version of the truth. Support costs will be strictly controlled to direct the maximum proportion of the IS budget to new systems, and rapid application development methods will be used to deliver new solutions quickly. We will partner with leading industry vendors, and enable business change through enterprise-grade commercial packages and in-house development.

It is useful to identify these conflicts with the mainstream view because it opens up and legitimises debate.

I also see a couple of conflicts within minimal IT. Some attempts to minimise IT estate and demand will increase it in other areas.

The first conflict is around proactive maintenance. Proactive maintenance works best when staff have a strong sense of ownership around systems. However, this can lead to an IT-led agenda, where the direction of the solution fits the interests and needs of the maintainers more than the users. I have seen the situation where staff do not bother with things like documentation and testing because they are so familiar that they do not see the need for it. And the architecture of closely-owned systems can be compromised when it is bent too much around one system, rather than more general standards. A strong, personalised sense of IT ownership can undermine the structure and discipline needed for effective long-term management.

The second conflict is around generic applications. Generic applications remove a lot of development cost and ongoing cost, and allow the organisation to focus more closely on their specific needs. However, the long-term manageability of solutions built on generic applications is problematic. You are very much at the mercy of the vendor, and you could be driven into replacement and upgrade activity that delivers no business value.

These internal conflicts within minimal IT do not worry me. If everything fitted together neatly, if I could present a perfect vision of minimal IT, I would be more worried. Real life is messy, and a world view without compromise is always suspect. Conflicts show us where we need to debate and to achieve balance. The more that we identify and articulate conflicts, the more we can improve how we manage IT and the value that we deliver.

Next: Minimal IT strategy

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