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5 September 2006

Systems orientation: understand your IT

By Andrew Clifford

If you want to cut costs, you need to make your IT easy to understand. You need to think of your IT as a collection of business systems, not a collection of technologies.

Most businesses think about their IT as a collection of responsibilities and technologies. You might have an application development group, a support group, and technical groups such as networks, databases and servers. You might group IT by business area, such as sales, distribution, and finance. Or you might group IT by technology, such as PCs, Unix, the web, and mainframes. Most businesses use a mixture of all these different viewpoints.

Having multiple viewpoints makes IT hard to understand and difficult to manage.

Some business try to understand their IT better by using enterprise architecture (EA) to model their IT. EA models can show logical applications, system instances, data models, databases, business processes, interfaces, and networks, all interrelated and cross-referenced.

EA can model IT very effectively, but it does not make it easy for everyone to understand. Most people are put off by models.

A systems orientation is a way of viewing your IT that is easy for everyone to understand. A systems orientation breaks the IT down into separate systems, where each system is a meaningful and complete unit. By this definition, a system includes the business application software, the systems software and hardware on which it runs, its database, its network connections, and its support arrangements.

The rationale for a systems orientation is that everything comes together in the system. The business requirements, application software, server environment, database, network and support team all come together in the system. A systems orientation does not have the rigour of EA, it hides technical details, and it does not tell you about business processes. But it is simple enough for everyone to understand.

Object orientation is a good analogy for systems orientation. A system is a high-level object that encapsulates business requirements, technical implementation, and support arrangements.

A systems orientation has many advantages.

  • A systems orientation encourages decoupled systems with well-defined interfaces, which is the basis for effective systems integration.
  • A systems orientation helps build a single list of systems, which makes it much easier to communicate and co-ordinate IT management.
  • A systems orientation is the basis of system governance, which helps improve quality and reduce costs significantly in the long term.
  • A systems orientation is a precondition of other cost-reducing orientations, particularly responsibility orientation, which I will cover next week.

A systems orientation also helps reduce costs by making it easier to decommission systems. Decommissioning is very hard because system boundaries are too loosely defined and it is difficult to calculate the business and technical impact of decommissioning. A system orientation helps you see the boundaries and impact, which makes decommissioning easier. Decommissioning reduces the functional overlap between systems, and reduces the number of systems that need support. This reduces costs.

Systems orientation is not the most exciting of management practices. But it does help you understand your IT better, and is a foundation for many other improvements. By making your IT understandable, a systems orientation is a big first step towards reducing your IT costs.

Next: Responsibility orientation: strengthen business ownership


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