Category Archives: Governance

The Art of Synthetic Simplicity

IT is in the business of creating synthetic simplicity. We’re called upon to unravel complexity and deliver services that improves productivity or improves organizational knowledge. The nature of IT’s work lives in the world of abstraction and representation. This is in contrast to other business units that interact with their environment in very concrete terms. This means that the challenge of relating to IT isn’t bound up the technical components that make up the concrete portion of IT’s work. Every industry is complicated. In terms of technology IT is no different than a mechanic or an electrician. Every specialization has a vocabulary and perspective that requires initiation to understand. What separates IT is the abstractive nature work they must perform as well. In a sense, it’s the difference between talking to a geometer (such as a carpenter or architect) and a topologist. And yes, there are applications for topology in the business.  At least with a geometer, their work is rooted in familiar concepts such as distance and angles. Compare that with trying to discuss with someone who performs a chunk of their work utilizing homologies. IT is home to the topologists and philosophers of the enterprise. And, as I will make the case, the ecologists as well.

Let’s take a fairly universal experience as an example: building a student registration application. Most everyone in the United States has experienced student registration. It is, for the most part, a straight-forward experience. Students have requirements to graduate, classes fill those requirements, classes have rooms, classes have teachers, teachers have students. But once one starts managing students, one must discuss managing teachers, and once one is managing teachers, one begins to touch payroll and benefits. Not to mention scheduling. There’s also weird circumstances to handle as well. What about teachers that are also students (if you’re a university)? What about pre-requisites? Sabbaticals? Student-teaching gigs? Complexity creeps into the room and takes a seat next to you. Its invisible but palpable grin bears down on you. You might end up with a case of scope creep. This is going to take longer than everyone expected. The end result will need to be a simple interface. A package of workflows. A suite of reports. The end user will need to experience synthetic simplicity. There’s a reason that it’s a rite of passage for an IT worker to design a student registration application.

What it will take to get there is a team of business analysts working with your department, interviewing subject matter experts and holding charrettes. Business architects, programmers, and database modelers all working to build ontologies, business logic, business domains, and other attendant artifacts that reflect a perspective regarding your business. They’re building a system to absorb the complexity of student registration. This work of unraveling complexity and then repackaging it in an ordered and maintainable system requires a nexus of collaborative creativity. This is generally something the business has a very hard time relating to. The work is esoteric and abstract.

In a very real sense, complexity hasn’t been reduced by IT, it’s been displaced out of the business and into the realm of IT. This is good news though, complexity scales much better within IT systems in comparison to manual and unmanaged processes utilizing human middleware. At scale, it’s certainly less costly although not always in the sense that it will reduce your operational expenditures. There’s a number of ways to be costly outside of mere OPEX.

To manage scope creep and avoid building a monolithic and monstrous enterprise application, boundaries around the application must be created.  Modules for communicating with other systems must be built. This means that the subtle work of IT is bound up in the act of naming; that is, the drawing of distinction between systems and the background environment.

So take the student registration application built and managed by IT and add to the mix a payroll and benefits application, a curriculum management application, so on and so forth and you can see emergent complexity begin to unfold. IT doesn’t merely manage systems and applications, they manage a sophisticated ecosystem. And right it should be because it’s an abstracted mirror of the enterprise. It is the representative ecosystem of the organization along with its entities and relationships. Tending to good stewardship, IT must rely on practices such as application portfolio management and governance.  They must be baked into IT’s processes and procedures. This is a big deal. Unfortunately, it stands in stark contrast to the order-placement relationship we have had with IT in the past. It’s also quite different from our own individual experiences as consumers. Quite frankly, it just looks like red tape. While tempting to dismiss, the imperative of a healthy ecosystem cannot be ignored.

Managing the ecosystem of enterprise applications that drive the business is a complex affair in its own right. Analogous concepts such as dealing with invasive species and other disruptive elements like pollution hold true for IT as well. What manifests in response are processes and procedures for ensuring that the healthy ecosystem the business has created with IT isn’t put at risk. Concretely put, it’s not unlike making sure that seeds and plants from Hawaii don’t leave with you when you depart. The unplanned introduction of new systems can, over time, consume disproportionate resources resulting in the inhibition of innovation elsewhere. One of my favorites examples is a training database for a major pharmaceutical company. Built by someone outside of IT, it eventually contained millions of rows of training data.  It was a three table Access database joined on the comments field. IT wasn’t looped in until it was on the verge of collapse. Had it collapsed, the penalties from the FDA would’ve been immense. Additionally, the media would’ve pilloried the organization. This was a real thing. Imagine the cost associated with it. This is the stuff of legends.

As with all things, governance should be elegant and graceful. In practice, it gets a bit messy. But evolution is messy. It is IT’s responsibility to avoid a Kafka-esque nightmare. It’s the enterprise’s responsibility to understand and communicate their problems, working with IT as partners to find solutions. Mature businesses leverage IT’s unique lateral position, perspective, and skills to lead. An indicator of a organization’s prospects begins with a look at the health of the IT department and how well they manage the business’ application ecosystem.

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Getting Punched in the Hall

Last night I took a call from a friend who’s been tasked to architect an update to an aging infrastructure for a large organization. The state of their infrastructure was in such a state of disrepair that daily crises, lack of available parts, and lapsing warranties prompted the organization to migrate to new hardware.

His call was prompted by the fact that, in the preliminary work that he had done, the services he had moved consumed significantly more resources than was anticipated and by a wide margin. The vast disparity called into the question what it would take to bring overall performance in line with industry standards. The cost estimates were so far outside what was budgeted that the only recourse would be to prioritize services and proceed from there.

As I asked about simple stuff such as who has an understanding of what services are critical and which ones aren’t, he said something that really struck me, “You know, every day I walk down the hall and every day someone jumps out and punches me in the gut with a new issue. I can’t tell which issues should have priority. No one knows what the business critical services are outside of, ‘All of them.'” There’s the heart of it. There’s no organization agreement on what has priority in the place of business and without that agreement, decisions are temporal and political. In fact, I would theorize the vast state of neglect is symptomatic of a long history of failure to agree.

So you wake up and find yourself in an organization that has doesn’t have strong leadership. You’re tasked with improving conditions and have some budgetary support within your own business unit. After that, things drop off quickly. Petty bickering and in-fighting dominate meetings and decisions are put on hold. Nothing calls up professional fight or flight like the above situation. You’re ready to label the organization a ship of fools and jump ship to a more attractive offering.

Not all organizations are created equal. There’s nothing wrong with leaving but make sure you leave it in a place better than you found it. In this particular situation, I called upon the advise a Gartner analyst once told me,  “Don’t be afraid to be a little wrong. Few things prompt immediate engagement like correcting someone.” My advise was for him to create an informal catalogue of the services his organization provides (however incomplete), document the supporting infrastructure elements and, this is key, for him to order them by what he thought was the most critical. Then he should call a series of cross-group work sessions to refine the list and gain consensus, starting at the operational level. He would need to make sure to recruit individuals who are likely to be engaged in the work and who are, “Dedicated to winning the World Series, not to getting a better contract.”

Build informal groups that are dedicated to excellence within the organization, engage your peers, and build pockets of high-performance. Create a conspiracy of success with the peers you partner with to deliver service to your customers.

When dysfunction dominates an organization’s culture and puts a stranglehold on decision making, the answer isn’t to look up for the solution. The answer is to provide leadership yourself. It’s not uncommon for executives to become defensive when the business isn’t performing as it should and to point fingers at each other. Instead of mirroring that behavior at the operational level, it’s important to fill that void with strong positive leadership. By doing so, you’re organically changing the culture of the organization. When you are successful and bring about an improvement that each of the representative groups can take credit for, you stand a good chance of improving the probability that those that represent you on the board of directors will work together in the future. Success always has many parents. Positive leadership is remarkably resilient and contagious. All it takes is one person to convince a few others to commit to it (and the grit to remain committed).

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