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6 April 2010

IT mismanagement principles

By Andrew Clifford

There are general principles for the mismanagement of IT that apply at the level of the individual PC up to the entire enterprise.

I have had my laptop for a few years now, and it is grinding to a halt. It takes almost 10 minutes to finish booting. The modem, webcam, bluetooth and other peripherals no longer work properly. Many applications fail.

My laptop is typical. All PCs – except really well locked down ones – get clogged up after a while. I need to reformat the hard disk, reinstall the software and start again.

Are there any general principles that we can learn from the tendency of unmanaged PCs to get so clogged up? I can think of a few:

  • Uncontrolled sharing. My PC has layers of drivers and application software, interfering with each other and competing for the same components.
  • Presumption of specialness. A lot of software presumes that just because I want to use the software for one thing (such as connecting my phone), I want to use it for everything that it is capable of (such as synchronising music). Lots of software presumes it is so special that I should run it at startup.
  • Out of date. There is lots of software that I have installed and have not bothered to upgrade or remove.
  • Impulsive installation. I have compilers for languages I never use, and half a dozen webcam applications. I carelessly installed both VirtualBox and VMWare virtualization systems, both of which have to interact with the machine at a fairly low level. It is surprising anything works.
  • Uncontrolled customisation. I have evolved a "clever" way of setting environment variables and running software from a portable drive. It works, but it adds complexity because I have not done it in a standard way.

My management of my own PC is ill-disciplined and short term. I deserve the problems I get.

These principles are broader than uncontrolled PCs. They apply throughout IT, and make a big contribution to the mess of legacy systems that many of us have to fight.

  • Uncontrolled sharing. Legacy systems are like spaghetti, with ill-defined data flows and data accesses all over the place. We can not understand it, and certainly not sort it out.
  • Presumption of specialness. Most IT environments are full of half-implemented strategic initiatives that did not follow the rules, but were never completed so now they are just exceptions.
  • Out of date. Many systems are not kept up-to-date with technical and business changes because there is no business case. Yet, eventually, these systems become a drag on the business, and we forced into expensive replacements.
  • Impulsive installation. IT is clogged up with lots of short term solutions for "quick win" projects, the long term impact of which was never thought through.
  • Uncontrolled customisation. We customise software carelessly and are then unable to manage it through new versions.

The parallels are very strong. There are general principles of IT mismanagement which we can see in the tendency of our own PCs to turn to unmanageable mush and in the difficulties of the long-term management of enterprise systems. We need to unlearn these principles.

Next: Grasping the future


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