Leadership

IT: Caught between a rock and a hard place.


I was reading a book the other night that had a couple of pages devoted to change. After reflecting on the information, I started thinking more about the dual demands that are placed on IT by organizations.

The first demand is to be a utility. By this I mean that the organization wants their IT to be as reliable as the electricity that flows into the building - No down time, always on, and as easy to use as plugging a power cord into a wall. Needless to say, this is no small feat and takes quite a bit of work to guarantee 24/7/365 with no mistakes.

Then we have all the experts saying that in order for IT to be successful, it must be agile, able to change at a moments notice, not only understanding business needs but also able to anticipate them and oh, by the way, help them work through the change that will need to take place in order to be successful.

Anyone hearing that Sesame Street song right about now about things not belonging together? Because if you look at the qualities that make one successful at being a utility, they don’t necessarily mesh 100% with being an agile, lean, mean, change machine. Yet many of us try to do both everyday, with varying degrees of success.

These demands become increasingly harder as budgets shrink and IT staffing gets smaller all the time. If you talk to many CIOs, they feel that they are lucky to keep the lights on and they and their employees are going above and beyond just trying to keep services from eroding, let alone floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.

So how does one handle these "competing" demands? There are many different ways organizations have approached this quandary. Here are a few of them:

Outsourcing – The idea being that if you can’t do it well yourself, let someone else do it. To be honest with you, I think the jury is still out on outsourcing. For every success story I hear, I hear two horror stories. I think the model of outsourcing smaller pieces or select functions will end up being the ideal way to go rather than the let’s throw out the baby with the bathwater approach.

Creating different IT organizations within a single organization – I’m not talking decentralizing IT here, although that is another approach, but creating one IT organization whose sole purpose in life is to operate the "utility," while the other focuses on innovation and bringing new products and projects on line. To some degree, this can make sense. There are those IT professionals who are well suited to and prefer the routine of keeping things running reliably and those who hate maintenance and thrive on change and new development. Being able to split these roles apart can prove successful, provided both departments get what they need regarding resources. In many organizations, being able to focus on just one or the other and not both is a dream that will never become reality.

Decentralizing – As mentioned above, creating separate departmental IT operations that are closer to the customer can prove beneficial or detrimental and a duplication of effort depending on the culture of the organization.

In ideal circumstances, I think the best approach might be all of the above. Outsourcing of select functions (perhaps antivirus and intrusion detection or purchasing software as a service as an example) combined with two groups; one dedicated to service, and the other new development, with departmental IT that act as liaisons to both units.

As much as people might proclaim, there is no one right answer to the competing demands placed on IT and what works in one place may not work in another. Perhaps most important in this whole discussion is that IT management needs to make organization management realize that there is this conundrum of competing demands and that it is often an either or situation if budget cannot support both. I know that in many organizations, the “utility” portion of the business does not get any attention from customers and management if it is running correctly.

Ultimately, it is up to IT to try and strike a balance between the two and how they do that is often how they are judged. Lean too far one way and you're deemed inflexible and customer unfriendly. Lean too far in the other direction and you're accused of being responsive but unreliable. Cut it just right and people either love you or hate you – after all – you can’t make everyone happy and everyone that carries an iPOD or a Blackberry seems to know how to do your job better than you do. Know this though: People get fired for leaning too far in either direction – but failing as the utility will hasten your exit far sooner than being unresponsive. But in either case – we are often caught between a rock and a hard place.

16 comments
memsley1
memsley1

This article summarises IT in a nutshell. On one hand we are required to maintain existing production asset stability, availability and realibilty to serve the business (applications, servers, networks, PC's etc) and on the other hand we are required to remain flexible to changes brought about through the introduction of production changes caused by new projects and changing business requirements. IT has to remain flexible. If you look at the PC or server for example the cycle of technology change in the asset itself (more RAM, faster CPU's, increased disk capacity) gives some indication of the requirement for IT departments to keep pace with changes in technology. The drive for IT to continually reduce cost and drive in efficiency leads to further change, let alone what the business wants. IT itself often generates a lot of change. Whether you are an SMB, a medium or large enterprise the key to remaining flexible whilst providing utility is in effective change management. When I look at the words surrounding Utility (stability, reliability, availability, no downtime, mostly change averse - by the way I agree with the comment about support areas going largely unnoticed unless there are issues) and I look at the words surrounding Agility (flexibility, adaptability, pro-active, typically high business visibility, mostly acceptable to change) the only way to assure ongoing Utility is by managing change effectively into production. This might mean rejecting changes where inadequate testing or information has been provided, however even to stop a change from going in can be hard if the business is pushing for it, so this is when the setup of support to effectively manage issues is most important and the only way this can be done is by acquiring full and complete information about what is being implemented and be prepared (setup support contacts, establish SLA's, map out components of the solution to the groups that will support them etc). I dont think it matters whether you have 1, 2 or 10 different IT functions/departments, or 3 - 200+ IT staff, at the end of the day its how these departments and people work with the business, manage their expectations and manage the change through its cycle to become the next supported production application. Unfortunately in todays world businesses have to remain flexibile in order to maintain their competitiveness in the market. As mentioned with the reliance on technology to provide the business flexibility we have to be flexible ourselves.

dean.owen
dean.owen

But how much of each? I've been an IT professional since 1991 - and not much has changed. The core problem is still the same but the solutions offered over the years seem to be no more than trends and what ever is fashionable at the time...popular until something else comes along. From my perspective and experience - the multiple departments within a department might stand the better chance at success. The problem is that IT people are resistant to changes of this nature and senior management don't want to spend the money (or they don't have it to spend). Regardless of what the salesman tells you - IT costs lots of money. IT is like a dog - it's cute when it's a puppy but then one day you realize it's eating you out of house and home and crapping all over the place. Being an independent consultant has its issues, but I'm really happy to be away from the turmoil and toxic environment of the IT department. I've met with a number of senior IT managers the last two months and they all look like they've been beaten with a stick! One fellow looked like he was going to have a heart attack right in front of me. Not only is technology changing, but how we manage it. IT managers, business managers and senior executives need to work together to make this work. Ch...ch...ch...changes (as the old song goes). Dean Owen

steve
steve

I have worked in small, medium and large company IT departments. I find that most businesses 1)don't know how to utilize IT, 2)What is the IT role/function in their business model, 3)Have IT reporting to the wrong part of the organization (more common than most people think), 4)Don't realize that IT is part of any business core model. Etc, etc. I have seen outsourcing flop more than work. I have seen this centralize/decentralize go back and forth over the years. I do find this interesting, because business outsource IT based upon the idea that IT is not part of their core business model. In my opinion if you follow that reasoning then accounting, human resources, etc would fall under that philosphy. Over the years I have seen business managers and consultants tell management IT must be more customer service orientated. Problem I have encountered each person, department, etc has their own perception on what customer service means when it comes to IT. To some people if they ask for something and IT explains why it can't do that, then that person tells management that IT is not very customer service friendly, etc. Or a person makes a request and IT says yes it can be done in x amount of time, then that person feels IT is not moving fast enough and says IT needs to improve it's customer service response time. I could go on, but I feel that most of upper management still does not understand.

a.mahdi
a.mahdi

Well said Ramon. Indeed, a combination sounds like a great fit. Outsourcing in small chunks where it makes sense, and having a clear demarcation line between utility and innovation. These are key arguments. As for the demarcation line, this can be as simple as a Project Charter that clearly reserves a resource or a percentage of his time to the project rather than the daily operational job. This can be tricky and can fail if not rigidly implemented. I agree that having a clear split from the beginning is far easier to manage, but IT managers are always afraid that when there are no new projects then these guys will have nothing to do. Meanwhile, I can't remember a year where we had less than 40 projects to work on. I think your solution is workable, despite the trade off. You just need to strike the right balance like you said.

Fregeus
Fregeus

I've seen my share of people in this business going on burnouts for that exact reason. Keeping a balance between the two is most difficult, and in our "dispensable employees" era, everyone is afraid of the axe. That drives people to go far behond their capabilities and end up on workers comp. One of the problem i think is that Management either does not see this, or they refuse to see it. Either way, we end up paying the price in the end. I for one am no longer working in this rat race. I still work in the business, but i won't do more than I can because, in the end, I will be the one paying the price and the business will be the one getting the rewards, and that's just not fair. TCB

Mihnea D. Mironescu
Mihnea D. Mironescu

While your point is partially true, I can't help not thinking about where we're heading: a knowledge-based economy, where talent is the central point and the exchange currency. You can think now how increasingly difficult it is to replace an employee with every step you go up the ranks. It may be relatively easy to fill in an IT support vacancy, but I know I had to search almost 5 months for a good business analyst in the financial industry. Your "dispensable employees" era surely didn't apply here. I believe in IT talent and I believe in the importance of keeping it onboard once you got it in your team. And I do my best to protect it from unreasonable management decisions and to motivate it. After all if you as a manager don't act as a shield for your valuable people, who will?

Fregeus
Fregeus

Here, in Quebec, Canada, employees are disposable. At least, its the general feeling most of us have. We have no feeling of ownership or that we belong to an organisation. The employers try very hard to make us believe otherwise, but when push comes to shove, we are set aside like yesterdays paper.

Neil Leacy
Neil Leacy

A fine article, thank you. I've always tried to promote IT as the 'fourth utility' after gas, water and electric. Some people get it, others don't. The one's that don't tend to be the those that also declare themselves as 'non-techie savvy' but want to be able to access this, view that, manipulate the other without ANY consideration to the infrastructure and cost involved in getting them to that position. I like the idea of two IT departments but when you consider that for many SMB's the department is usually 3 or less it's not a feasable option. Cheers, Neil

adi.kabazo
adi.kabazo

Good point about SMBs having too small IT shops to permit a departmental approach. The route to take IMHO is outsourcing on the 'Utility' part using a SaaS provider for some applications (e.g. e-mail, CRM) and something like an Infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) for hosted server capacity (shared or virtualized servers) etc. These services are available from MSP of various sizes and expertise so even a resource constrained SMB should be able to find a service with the SLA that fits their needs and budget.

Tig2
Tig2

I have long said that a man cannot serve two masters. And while I get general agreement, I cannot get buy in. This results in delivering projects that I know in my heart are the wrong solution for the organization. It is difficult at best to act tactically and think strategically. And business frequently insists that you solve todays problem without looking forward to the problems of tomorrow. And it doesn't matter much if you can prove it in the numbers. I have literally said in meetings, "Tell me what you want to hear" so that I could get past the objections. And then have to figure out how to deliver a solution that fits what business thinks should be the right answer and IT can support. As long as there is a way for the tactical to speak to the strategic, I think that is a good model for IT. But we have to figure out how to set the ground rules. From a technical perspective, we should be driving strategic solutions to tactical problems. Business should define the need, IT should define the solution. But that isn't the way it happens. The more frequent scenario is that business tells IT what solution they want and IT ends up trying to tell business that the solution doesn't fit. But business is funding and they don't care. Add to that an executive level that doesn't understand the technology and what you get is a plethora of projects that finally get implemented only to be replaced before their dubious ROI can be reached. There's a solution out there. I can't believe that there isn't. But there also needs to be a willingness to SEE that there is a problem. The rock and the hard place are a result of a refusal on the part of business to see what place IT should occupy at the table. Business needs must be drivers but solutions should be defined by IT. Until we get at least that far, the struggle will continue.

Fregeus
Fregeus

Businesses still feel they were cheated with the new millenium bug thing. They still do not trust business project that are lead by IT. They still fear the huge cost that debacle ended up costing. We need to either find a way to get them over that, or show that it was not the huge loss of money they think it ended up being. I've always told business people that asked me about it that the reason why 99.99999% of systems were not affected is because, in the end, we were well prepared for it. But for each time i say that, they say they heard the contrary from someone else. We need to find a way to kill that rumor that all that money was spent for nothing and that the systems (and its data) were never in any danger. We need to earn their trust once again. At least, that's what I think. TCB Edited to correct typos

barna.kiss
barna.kiss

Trust is a tricky thing. It sounds great when you say that somebody should earn your trust, but let's think it through! Eraning your trust means in reality that you basically do not trust! Let's assume that he/she does something great - can you really trust him/her? I think you cannot! Because that was past and he/she may screw it up next time... I do not believe in earning trust! Because there will always be a shadow of "but what if...". There is just one way to get around: you should simply trust him/her, without conditions. That's actually what trust is. And if you can do so - may not be easy! - them you can free up both him/her and yourself! Therefore I have bad news for CIOs who are not trusted by their CEOs, as CEOs best move is the replace the CIO with somebody they can trust.

barna.kiss
barna.kiss

You can read about the temptation of believing that trust is to be earned e.g. in the famous Gallup book ?First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently? by Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman, in Chapter 2, if you?re interested. Maybe I could not express myself properly; can I try it again? In the matter whether Person A (e.g. the boss) trusts Person B (e.g. the subordinate): 1./ To give trust is a decision and it is Person A?s decision. 2./ It may be an attractive thought to Person B that he can earn trust, although in reality trust is given by Person A (as he makes the decision). (Said that: it should not drive Person B into despair if Person A does not trust him, as it is not Person B?s ?fault? ? I?ll come to that later.) 3./ Person A may base his decision on previous experiences (that Person B may interpret as earning) but in reality the real decision point is whether Person A dares to/can give away control. 4./ If Person A does not dare/cannot give away control (because ? as you put it ? things should keep going the way he (!) wants them to go) it is basically distrust, no matter how much Person A calls it. (Remember: if you basically distrust then ?making good decisions and good moves? in the past cannot mean anything for you about the future because you can always be disturbed by thoughts like: Were those decisions and moves really good? Am I really sure that there would not have been any better? What if he makes bad decision this time?...). 5./ If Person A says that his trust needs to be earned it may well be that he struggles about taking responsibility. Think about it: if Person B did well in the past and Person A decides for him and something goes wrong than Person A has a much better defensive position. ? It has nothing to do with trust, though. 6./ If Person A cannot trust Person B it may well be simply because Person A is in lack of self-confidence (= he cannot trust himself), as people tend to project their inner world outside: if your faith is that people are basically selfish and greedy you won?t be able to trust others because you think normally people are selfish and greedy. 7./ One interesting move of Person B could be to ask Person A what he needs so that he (Person A) can trust him (Person B). If Person A is honest to himself he will quickly realize that he cannot put together a list that could earn his trust (see 4. point + your experience: ?I've always told business people that asked me about it that the reason why 99.99999% of systems were not affected is because, in the end, we were well prepared for it. But for each time i say that, they say they heard the contrary from someone else.? It?s hard to handle someone else, somewhere, isn?t it?). Therefore if business still feels being cheated by Y2K meaning that business distrusts IT as a whole I can only see one solution: business (Person A) should choose somebody (Person B) whom they can trust, who ? in my view ? can hardly be an IT guy (it may be one of them, an economist, or similar). And IT guys should not be upset because of this as the problem is not on their side (see 2. point). Nevertheless I totally agree with Ramon that CIOs must find right balance between utility and responsiveness. And the more IT communicates to business the better the chance that IT?s value gets recognized. Whether they would trust IT?

Fregeus
Fregeus

You are the first to say (from what i gather on your post) that trust is given until taken away, while most wisdom says the trust is not given, it is earned. You say that you cannot trust someone if they did good before because they may do bad in the future. I say that a person may do good or bad weither you trust them or not, that is not the issue. You earn trust by making good decisions and good moves. The person (your boss) will trust you to keep doing the same. Trust is nothing more than faith that things will keep going the way you want them to go. But in order to put your faith into how things will go, you need to look at how things went first. I hope I'm clear enough in my explanation, I am not so sure myself. TCB

rschmid
rschmid

I balance these issues daily. In a lean manufacturing inviron I find ways to keep the "juice" flowing and keep pushing innovation on technology to keep the product moving. The issues I have are legacy systems that must be maintained and the lack of vision of the upper management to see the obsolescence that has arrived.

littleredrodeotr
littleredrodeotr

So, what else is new? It's always a challenge to work with customers. The trick I guess is to set expectations. Great article, thanx.