Walk Like a Dinosaur

Michael Krigsman’s most recent entry in the IT Project Failures blog is an interesting, colourfully-illustrated and upside-down look at the relationship between IT and traditional business.

His question, based on numerous similar postulations, is whether IT is becoming extinct. His answer (you knew it was a rhetorical question, right?) goes like this:

Since the days of punch cards, IT has believed itself to be guardian of precious computing resources against attacks from non-technical barbarians known as “users.” This arrogant attitude, born of once-practical necessity in the era of early data centers, reflects inability to adapt to present-day realities. Such attitudes, combined with recent technological and social changes, are pushing IT to share the fate of long-extinct dinosaurs.

The list of arguments he offers in support of this thesis are all valid to some degree, and all supportive of what he’s positing, but he somehow manages to miss the point that means most to business:

Monolithic, top-down, IT-as-bureaucracy approaches are being subverted by recent changes in technology and services, but so too is business in general.

Krigsman’s bullet list of arguments bear consideration, there’s no doubt. Let’s look at each of them in turn:

  • IT services have become a commodity.It might be more useful to look a little deeper and to state that communications have been commoditised differently in recent years. Krigsman, channeling Nick Carr, claims that IT’s baseline role underpinning all normal business practices makes it no more important to a CEO than plumbing. As one wise commentator put it, this only demonstrates how senior management under-rates the importance of plumbing.
  • Social media empowers users at the expense of IT.True enough. I believe it’s possible (not necessarily likely, but possible) that social media applications may provide some of the long-ago-promised disintermediation that Web pioneers ranted so much about in the 1990s.

    Social media do in many ways short-circuit some of the management processes that manifest themselves through monolithic, institutional IT, but: a) Their threat to corporate confidentiality has not fully been assessed; and b) A good many more forward-looking companies are embracing such tools through the leadership of their IT departments, who appreciate their lighter weight and lower maintenance costs.

  • Software as a service (SaaS) providers are replacing in-house IT infrastructures.I’d like to see some decent metrics before believing this. Prima Facie, it doesn’t have the ring of truth. I’ve seen numerous companies announce their intention to provide software as a service, but I haven’t seen signs of any significant migration.

    I don’t believe that the issue of information ownership has been adequately addressed just yet. Granted that most managers don’t get how privacy and confidentiality work on the Internet. But I’m sure that the lawyers will start to grok it, soon enough.

    Whether litigation and, potentially, legislation will have a salutary effect on corporate information protection remains to be seen, because new privacy legislation and regulation seems to be in constant contention with (semi-)official government surveillance polices. I strongly suspect, however, that software as a service will take the form of leased or rented application-in-a-box type servers being hosted inside a company premises, supported primarily by the vendor but managed by corporate IT.

  • IT leadership is alienated from senior management.

    Yes, jargon makes it difficult to be understood. Yes, projects – because they are poorly understood – are often late and/or over budget. Yes, IT managers need to make an effort to be clearer about their demesne. But the problem, again and again, is that other managers don’t think they need to know the details. And IT consists of nothing but details. I do my best to write plainly and use simple metaphors in my weekly column, but let me tell you, there are times in my professional life when I’ve been forced to say, “Look, I know you don’t understand me, but you’ve got to believe me when I say X.” Very often, this doesn’t happen. The discussion never moves beyond the sticker price, and damn the torpedoes. More about this in the next point.

  • Corporate leadership doesn’t understand the implications of IT decisions on business strategy.

    I can’t point to any studies, but anecdotal information and personal experience leads me to believe that this happens more often than people would like to admit. It’s preferable, I suppose, to blame the blathering geek. The worst outcomes almost always arise out of the worst possible compromise: Selecting a non-technical person as CTO or CIO. It’s true that good geek managers are rare as hen’s teeth. It’s also true that throwing Harvard MBAs at the problem does nothing to alleviate the disjuncture between IT and Business, and much to exacerbate it.

  • Volume purchasing arrangements contribute to IT stagnation.

    I wrote recently that detailed planning in an area of inherent complexity is pointless. A more process-focused approach, on the other hand, can be made to work reliably. In this light, the problems with cyclical purchase programmes become obvious, as do the shortcomings of per-seat or per-connection licensing.

    I don’t know what it will take to make people see that there are better models than costs that scale with your revenues. Such licensing schemes exist, but they are not the norm. Importantly, they usually come with professional support built-in. That’s not always true of standard commercial software licenses. As long as support is an overhead and not something to be taken advantage of, volume licenses will seem to make the most business sense.

    Software as a service as it’s most often envisioned simply exchanges leasing for ownership, but does nothing to address the fundamental issue of volume being valued over quality, savings over investment.

The problem lying at the heart of all of these issues is really quite simple: Communications works differently now that we have this Internet thing. In many ways it’s incompatible with 19th and 20th century business theory, and the jury is still out about which one will win.

Obviously the technology giants will learn lessons about management and technology and will, if only through natural bias, tend to adjust management to fit communications capabilities, rather than the other way around. But there are vast resources invested in the traditional corporate business model, and many of these businesses retain control over the means of distribution of information. The telecom companies in particular have become increasingly irritated by the subversive influence of the Internet, and they’re starting to realise that they can simply take the whole thing back.

Attacks on Net Neutrality and an increase in ‘Intellectual Property’ issues are symptomatic of the realisation that ownership has a completely different meaning where information is concerned, one that is in some ways quite antithetical to the way many corporations have done business in the past. It would be naive to think that they’d simply acquiesce to the changes being wrought on them. It’s not in their nature.

Spring is past on the Internet, and the bloom is, in some ways, off the rose. Corporate management is coming to the very expensive realisation that IT projects do not fit nicely with standard practice, but the alternative they face – distributed, open and ultimately uncontrollable collaboration tools – might represent more of a danger to them than the pitfalls of centrally managed, monolithic IT.

In my opinion, the battle is still being fought, and a lot more blood will flow before this particular dinosaur is nothing but a series of dents on the sedimentary substrate.

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