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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11 thoughts on “Going Overboard

  1. Gene, good reading, well-argued. I find your notion about IT’s two customers between them intriguing…I’ll have to think more about it.

    On silos I was going to say “So what? Plenty of IT departments excel at creating and sustaining silos, too.” A SaaS solutiin might even have better resilience etc.

    Your thought about (organisstion-level?) business continuity seemed more interesting to me: IT-as-an-agency could ensure suppliers and the organisation provide a coherent set of services supporting business continuity.

    Thank you for the HT.

    Cheers, O.

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    • Thanks, Oliver.

      Re: Silos – not all are bad. Sometimes it’s worth it to have things integrated and accessible, sometimes a higher degree of separation is warranted (more the whole “balance” thing).

      Indeed, enforcing (where appropriate) standards regardless of provider is one of those areas that is of value and would be lost in a pure decentralized model. BC is also one of those things that the business might not think of until too late.

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  2. I tend to encounter the bad kind of silos, I’m afraid. But then I fully agree that applying the principle of separation of concerns, for example, may well lead to architectures that rightly keep things separated that conceivably could be more integrated.

    I’d like to come back to the thought of digital enablement or IT-as-an-agency integrating and sourcing services from (internal and external) suppliers: In such a setting, external suppliers can be viewed as contributing specialised knowledge about technologies and methods that are not easily available within the organisation. IT could be viewed as contributing essential knowledge about the organisation, the bigger technology landscape and historic decisions that led to the status quo.

    By providing this contextual knowledge, the IT department (or anyone else willing to step up) could act as an amplifier of the external supplier’s expertise and activities. In effect, the IT department could be the catalyst that gets and keeps an effective reaction between the external supplier and the organisation going.

    Questions about the IT department’s value contribution would be a lot easier to answer when doing this again and again.

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    • I think most silos tend to be the accidental kind, the majority of which I’d expect to be of the bad variety. Unfortunately, that applies to much in the way of architecture.

      Re: digital enablement, I agree (with an extension). Sometimes external suppliers will provide specialized skills and experience and sometimes just staff augmentation. In either case, having a broker (IT) with the knowledge needed to manage the relationship between business and provider is a definite value add.

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