Last fall I had the pleasure of engaging Jeff Sussna, Christian Verstraete and Christian Reilly in a multi-day discussion on Twitter regarding IT’s relationship with cloud providers. As it developed, the conversation morphed into a discussion of potential metaphors for IT.
At the mention of “metaphor”, I’d imagine that eyes are glazing over, but bear with me while I establish its relevance to IT. Now Merriam-Webster tells us that “metaphor” is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them”. We find this same type of analogy used with patterns, the concept of which came out of Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. In essence, these metaphors are patterns, communicating a potential solution to problems of enterprise IT architecture in the same way that “bridge” and “factory” communicate potential solutions to software design problems. As such, they provide a frame of reference to those of us within IT as well as those we serve. Their importance lies in the message they convey to both sides of the table.
Two candidate metaphors emerged from the discussion. Christian Reilly took the view that an IT department’s role should become like that of a concierge, a service aggregator. While agreeing in principle, I took the position that a better analogy was that of a general contractor. A general contractor works to meet the client’s needs, performing some services while subcontracting others out, in a manner similar to the concierge. The difference is that the contractor possesses a set of domain expertise useful for advising the client. The contractor is also bound by building codes that constrain him/her in delivering the customer’s requests. This describes what, in my opinion, the role of IT should be.
The dysfunctional situation described in the first post of this series, “Fixing IT – How to Make a Monster (Customer)”, defines the antithesis of an effective IT operation. “Fixing IT – Taming the (Customer) Beast”, the second post in the series, discusses some of the mindset changes needed to repair the relationship between IT and the business and why that relationship is so important. The third post, “Fixing IT – Products, Not Projects Revisited”, outlines the way delivery processes can affect IT’s relationship with the business. “Fixing IT – The Importance of Ownership”, the fourth post in the series, takes on how the issues of budget and ownership can affect the relationship. This post, will wrap up the series by bringing those issues together to outline my opinion on how IT can move forward in spite of the challenges it faces today.
The ZDNet post that inspired the discussion I mentioned above, “4 ways IT can rise above outside cloud competitors”, is an excellent example of how IT can turn things around by providing additional value to cloud services. This can be done by acting as a pseudo-VAR in place of acting as a competitor as the ZDNet article proposed. In either case, IT provides real value to the business via its specific knowledge of both the business domain and the in-house technical environment. This approach, advocated by Christian Verstraete in his HP Blogs post “Respond to Shadow-IT, source services from external providers”, is becoming more and more necessary because 7 out of 10 organizations are using unapproved cloud applications (according to a study from January, 2013).
IT has been in this position before. Thirty years ago the disruptive, security challenging technology that IT had no time and budget for was the PC. History teaches that that genie is not going back in the bottle. Instead, the winning approach is to enable the use of technology that furthers the goals of the business (which is all the business wants, anyway) in a safe manner.
The words “in a safe manner” above is what makes the general contractor metaphor appropriate. IT serves two sets of masters, the individual business units and the enterprise as a whole. Sometimes, the interests of a business unit can conflict with those of the organization as a whole. In these situations, IT has a valid reason to refuse to break the rules (although finding a way to achieve the desired outcome and stay within the rules is better than a flat refusal). What is important is that the rules, as such, are not owned by IT, but by the organization. IT is well placed to advise the enterprise about the technical capabilities and trade-offs around decisions regarding security, business processes, etc. It is inappropriate, however, for IT to attempt to dictate these decisions (this is actually an example of a business unit’s interests potentially conflicting with those of the enterprise). Steve Jones illustrated how counter-productive this usurpation can be in his post “Why your IT strategy failed or why the business hates IT”:
IT Guy: “The new systems have new processes and we need to tell you what they are so you can change.”
Business Guy: “Have you done an impact analysis against our current processes?”
IT Guy: “No we’ve just defined the Best Practice To-Be processes, you need to do the impact and change management. We need the meeting so we can tell you what the To-Be processes are”
Business Guy in a voice so dripping with sarcasm I thought we’d have a flood: “I look forward to our IT department telling the business what Best Practice is for our industry.”
IT Guy, completely failing to read the sarcasm: “Great we’ll get it organised”
Some take exception to referring to “the business”, observing that IT is part of the business. This, of course, is true. However, the best way to demonstrate that is not via the terms used in conversations, but via the support given to executing the enterprise’s strategy. Making things happen is the way show that support.