Organisational change and IT

More than a bar-room conversation?


Lab It is great to theorise about all the good things IT can bring. Indeed, a fortunate few have that as their jobs. Just imagine what life would be like, for example, if it were possible to provision virtual servers on the fly, or provide real-time business intelligence tools to everyone who needed them, or implement management systems that really did know about everything in the IT environment. How easy everything could be.

The reason such things don’t always work is sometimes down to the complexity of existing IT environment, the fragmentation of data and all those things we love writing about because they cut through the hype.

“Here’s my IT as it stands – just tell me exactly how <insert clever technology here> will work?” It’s really, really not that we are luddites or skeptics – we’ve got as much sweat and tears invested as anybody, and a genuine desire to see IT delivering what it promises. However, success in IT does require a level of pragmatic realism, as Reg readers are quick to tell us.

While day-to-day conversations tend to be around technical topics and real challenges of development and deployment, a less-discussed area is that of organizational impact. Think of the last time you had the discussion which involved the clause, “It’s not really about the technology you know,” inevitably leading to discussions around how non-technical issues were far more important than ‘simply’ getting the technology right.

A few years ago I was involved in the production of a book about technology-driven change and the patterns of behaviour around it. The resulting book is really quite good – my own claim to fame (pdf) is to have coined the term ‘champion skeptic’ to describe how to turn someone against the change into a positive force. (In my experience, he was actually called Phil.)

Our own book, The Technology Garden, also attempted to respond to the fact that non-technical skills were at least important as technical skills when it came to moving technology forward.

A couple of things characterise such books (and not just these two, but the whole genre) – most importantly perhaps the fact that only a minority ever really reads them. Most people are in IT because they actually like technology, and most people who aren’t in IT think that IT should sort out whatever is necessary to make things work. ‘Getting things right’ can fall between the desires of IT and the business, and while a few poster-child CIOs and enterprise architects much claim to have the smarts to bridge the gap, the majority of organizations keep IT in a subordinate position.

Perhaps you are working in an organization where ‘the business’ has seized control of major IT projects or programmes. This can be a two-edged sword. Of course it’s a good thing that the business side of the house gets involved in IT delivery, as nobody knows better whether or not IT is delivering. The downside of course is that ‘outsiders’ won’t necessarily have a grasp of the intricacies of IT: in the worst case, non-IT people will try to define an architecture (I’ve seen that), which stands little chance of scaling.

Whether the business people are good at their jobs or not, they will often hit resistance to change from IT, which will only sometimes be related to technical issues. The ‘fear factor’ associated with job security or stability is far more likely to be driving such resistance.

The fact is, however, that major IT projects are inevitably going to be about business change, and the two have to go hand in hand. As it continues its steady evolution, IT becomes less and less about individual products, languages or whatever, and more about getting things to work together. We can see this with virtualisation, 10-gigabit Ethernet, unified communications, consumerisation, security and a raft of other areas of IT.

From a vendor perspective, technology providers sometimes find they hit an insurmountable barrier – indeed, I’ve had this sort of conversation with a rep from a networking company: “We’ve got all this great technology,” he said. “But if we want to deliver all the things we know it can do, there’s a point at which the customer realizes they’re going to have to make some quite big changes to how they do things.”

To be frank, once things reach this point, very few vendors or end-users know how to move things forward. Conversations tend to fall back and regroup onto a more tactical basis – in this case agreeing to implement a straightforward network upgrade for example, without all the bells and whistles. This could be seen as another wasted opportunity but, to date, it’s just how things generally happen in IT.

When you look at your senior management - which may mean looking at yourself - answer this question: does your IT organisation have the wherewithal to drive major change in your business? Or indeed, do your senior business executives have the skills and knowledge to ensure IT delivers effectively?

If the answer to either of these questions is no, perhaps a second question is – do you ever expect them (or you) to have such power, and indeed skills? Perhaps at some point in the future, we will see a genuine shift, in which IT is not only seen as strategic, but the people responsible on both sides of the divide will be given the tools and training they need (or indeed be replaced by someone better). In the meantime however, we are stuck with what we have, for better or worse. ®


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