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2 October 2012

IT's ethos

By Andrew Clifford

Many of the problems in IT stem from a lack of professional ethos.

Most professions have a reasonably well-defined ethos. For doctors, the well-being of the patient is the core focus. For lawyers, it is representing the best interests of the client. For retailers, it is customer service.

There is no professional ethos in IT. We do not all agree on the purpose of our profession. Is it to deliver services smoothly? Is it as an agent of business change? Is it about guarding information assets? Is it about exploring and exploiting new technology?

The lack of consistent ethos means there is conflict in most IT roles. Here are some exaggerated examples:

  • Support staff who are intimately familiar with systems become a barrier to change. Support staff rightly see their job as understanding systems so that they can fix problems and make changes for their users. But because they are intimately familiar with the systems, and because their jobs revolve around them, support staff are too defensive of the status quo and do not have the vision required for major change.
  • Developer's pursuit of novelty and elegance detracts from the need to focus on tangible deliverables. It is important to innovate, both exploiting the value that new technology can bring, and finding simpler and more efficient ways to achieve aims. But developers, especially the more geeky ones, get carried away with trying to build the perfect solution, and lose sight of the main objective of providing valuable (but often boring) business functionality.
  • Service delivery's customer service ethos, although not conflicted with itself, is very limited. It does not include major business change, and does not include the deep, detailed improvements to software that developers perform.
  • Even senior leader's pursuit of change undermines good management. Largely because of the conflicts in IT, organisations engage senior leaders to define and push through major change. But so often the vision of the change is not matched by a capability to govern or a realistic view of what is involved. In hindsight, many major initiatives are fecklessly overambitious, they fail to deliver on their promises, and leave the next senior leader with a legacy of complexity and political embarrassment.

Although other professions have conflicts, the conflicts are worse in IT because of the lack of ethos. There are always conflicts between those fascinated by the technicalities of the profession and those focussed on making money, there are problems when the ambitious overcommit the organisation, and problems with the limited perspective of people stuck in the same role for too long. But in other professions, there are commonly held views that act as a reference point and to which everyone has to at least pay lip service. In IT the problems are worse because there is no such common ethos.

IT is too young to fix this problem. Other professions have had centuries to work out their ethos. This has involved subdividing the professions into more coherent, less conflicted sub-professions, like pharmacists, surgeons, family lawyers, merchandise buyers, and so on. IT is very young and has changed hugely in its short life. An ethos will evolve, but don't expect it any time soon.

Next: Letting go

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