Going Overboard

A little too far to one side

A recent Tweet from Oliver Baier led me to an article from Jeff Sussna, “The Baby and the IT Bathwater”. Sussna’s post discussed two articles dealing with the disconnect between business and IT.

In “Maybe it’s time to get rid of your IT department”, Matt Rosoff of CITEworld outlined Kevin Jones’ solution for IT alignment issues – eliminate IT. Jones’ position is that the various business units take over responsibility for their own IT needs. Jones describes that position as “kind of radical” and “difficult to do”, but states that “it works” (though no examples of its use were cited).

Mark Thiele, in the appropriately titled “Getting rid of IT is like selling your car because it’s got a flat”, observes:

The idea of just getting rid of an IT department or an HR department is like saying “I’ve got a flat again, that’s it, get rid of the car”. Out of context and with no understanding of how or where that car adds value or what the alternative costs would be, getting rid of it might seem like the right approach. However, after a little review you might find that the alternative to having your own car might be more painful in the long run, than just fixing the flat.

Thiele notes that the root cause of some business frustrations may stem from the business itself (complaining about the cost of IT and then complaining when initiatives are denied due to costs), which is a fair point. More importantly, he notes a number of risks involved with parceling out IT to the business: ignoring global concerns, creating silos, creating redundancies and increasing risks. To these I’d add unfamiliarity with the intricacies of managing technology and technologists.

Jeff Sussna’s post takes the position that IT would function better as an agency that proactively supports the business with technology solutions. He rightly (in my opinion) states that IT can no longer be the “Department of ‘No'”. Instead, it needs to be “out and about in the business” as well as handling centralized concerns.

In previous posts, I’ve discussed how attempting to hold back the tide leads to guerrilla initiatives. I am very much on board with the opinion that shadow IT is indicative of an IT department’s failure to provide value. Given the choice, I’d rather be the business leader explaining why I’d circumvented IT in order to succeed than be the IT
executive explaining why my customers felt the need to go around me to get their needs met.

That being said, Jones is wrong. In his haste to deal with the problems of IT, he fails to look at the entire picture. His own words (as reported in the CITEworld article) illustrate the problem: “If HR is making it hard to get work done, why have an HR department?”. It’s a nice sound bite, but if he actually means it, he’s dangerously deluded. That “cure” would be as bad, if not worse, than the disease, not only due to the reasons listed by Mark Thiele, but others as well. Like most radical proposals, it fails the test of practicality.

IT has two classes of customers: the business units it supports and the enterprise as a whole. Only by maintaining the appropriate tension between the two can it operate effectively. Too much emphasis on centralized concerns leaves the business units constrained. By the same token, catering to business unit needs without addressing issues such as security and business continuity, puts the entire organization at risk. As with so many things, balance is key.

The budget is an excellent tool for helping to maintain that balance. IT is poorly placed to make the business decisions about which projects and products should be funded, aside from few those enterprise-wide issues which it properly owns. Business units are better positioned to determine what will provide value, given appropriate advice about their options. By serving as both a direct provider where appropriate and as a broker for external services, IT can flexibly meet those needs the business units see fit to fund.

When IT competes for funding from the business, there is incentive to provide the best possible customer service, and internal IT is often well positioned to provide the best value to its customers. When this value is combined with the freedom to choose, a partnership can develop between consumer and provider that leads to the trust needed for IT to become a strategic partner to the business.

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“It Depends” and “I Don’t Know”

Getting good advice?

When Croesus of Lydia considered going to war against the Persian Empire, he sought advice from the best available source of his day – the Oracle at Delphi. He was told that attacking the Persians would mean the end of a mighty empire. Armed with this “knowledge”, he attacked and a mighty empire, his own, was destroyed.

While the Oracle’s advice was arguably accurate, it definitely wasn’t helpful. The ambiguous answer conveyed more certainty than was warranted. While Croesus was complicit in his downfall (what’s that saying about “assumptions”?), the Oracle must also accept some blame. Failing to convey the uncertainty was a betrayal.

Just like Croesus, contemporary decision makers crave certainty. Executives are frequently called upon to synthesize multiple viewpoints, many of which may be outside their area of expertise, into a coherent decision. An expert’s opinion of what’s “right” can be a seductive thing. Likewise, technologists are often uncomfortable with ambiguity, and rightly so. Implementing contradictory requirements is difficult, to say the least.

Uncertainty, however, is a fact of life. Pretending that it does not exist is neither honest, nor effective. Picking a number without any basis in reality does not serve to eliminate it. In fact, elimination of uncertainty is a fool’s errand. As Tom Graves stated in “Who will lead us out of our uncertainty”:

But that tag-line is kinda interesting – because the only valid answer is ‘No-one’.

Oh, no doubt there’d be plenty of people who would offer to lead us out of uncertainty. Yet the reality is that in every case they’ll either be a fool, a fraud, or both. The blunt fact is that uncertainty is a fact of life: there is no way to ‘lead us out of uncertainty’ – because ‘certainty’ is itself a delusion about a world that does not and cannot ever actually exist.

A tweet from Charlie Alfred provides the alternative:

Just as weather is composed of many simple physical processes whose interplay results in a chaotic whole, so too are systems (both human and machine). While we may have a firm understanding of the behavior of the various components, as our scope widens, our certainty must decrease. Tweaks to those low-level components must be tempered by the knowledge that the consequences may go beyond our intentions.

Under these circumstances, the phrases “It depends” or “I don’t know” become the honest answer. It is important to remember, however, that Ruth Malan’s definition of a good architect, one who can tell you what it depends on, applies.

Given the uncontrolled variables of network speed, client machine capabilities, site traffic, and network traffic (just to name a few), anyone who guarantees a page load time for an internet application would be Tom’s “a fool, a fraud, or both”. The genuine article would explain why a definite answer was not possible, what actions could be taken to test the capability in question, and what could be done to improve the chances of meeting the requirement when faced with various challenges.

Human systems are just as chaotic and uncertain, subject to circumstances beyond an individuals control. Akio Toyoda, President of Toyota, was recently quoted in the New York times:

“Have we really turned into a company that will be profitable and continue to grow no matter what happens to its business environment?” he asked.

“I am not sure yet, is my honest answer. An unprecedented crisis even beyond the scale of the Lehman shock may happen again,” Mr. Toyoda added. “We’ll only know the answer when such events actually happen.”

It takes a certain amount of courage to say “I don’t know”. “It depends” is not always the answer that people want to hear. However, in the face of uncertainty, they are the right answers. Awareness of uncertainty arms you to deal with events as they arise. A false sense of certainty is comforting, right up until it’s shattered.