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26 May 2009

What's really going on 1: how we manage IT

By Andrew Clifford

We can significantly improve IT value, cost, risk and responsiveness if we understand what's really going on with our IT. To start, we need to understand what's really going on in our IT organisations.

IT really matters. It supports vital business processes. It can save a lot of money and reduce risk. It can also cost a lot of money and introduce a lot of risk. You can use IT to grasp new business opportunities quickly, but IT can also be a major barrier to business change.

Because it matters so much, managing IT well is really important.

IT is also very complicated. It requires the co-ordination of a vast number of concepts and technologies. As well as being very important, managing IT is very difficult.

We have responded to the importance and difficulty of managing IT by splitting IT down. We split it down in three different ways: people, process and technology.

We split IT people down by specialisation. We divide the technical work into a huge number of sub-professions: business and system analysts, projects managers, programmers, architects, systems programmers, network administrators, desktop support engineers. The list is almost endless. Because of the technical complexities of IT, we need to co-ordinate the efforts of multiple specialists to deliver IT solutions.

We split IT work down into processes. We have processes for project delivery. We have processes for service delivery. Defined processes give us some assurance for the outcome of tasks. They also let us capture and reuse the best approaches, and we have built up vast libraries of process expertise.

We split IT technology down into multiple technical areas. We have hardware layers, system software, databases, middleware, application servers, reusable objects, business applications, user interfaces, and so on. This works well with technical specialisms, and allows us to achieve economies of scale by using experts to support the same technical area across multiple IT applications.

We know that IT really matters and is complicated, and we have responded by creating structures of people, processes and technology to deliver IT.

Yet, despite all this management effort, there is still huge room for improvement.

To pick a few common themes:

  • There is a huge gulf of misunderstanding between business and IT.
  • IT projects, especially large ones, have a dismal success rate by any measure.
  • Most organisations have vast, unmaintainable legacies of old systems, demanding a huge slice of the annual IT budget.
  • Few organisations feel safe from IT risks.
  • Despite massive drops in hardware prices, IT remains stubbornly expensive, often one of the largest areas of expenditure in the organisation.

Within each organisation, different parts of IT have hugely different characteristics in terms of value, cost, risk and responsiveness. Even if you do not agree that there are huge problems in IT, there is certainly huge potential for improving the worst parts up to the level of the best.

Why is this? Why, despite all our management effort, does IT management remain so hard, and and why does consistent, long-term IT success remain so elusive?

Next week I will cover the reasons why we find IT management so hard.

Next: What's really going on 2: why we do not succeed

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