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Stop the Merry-Go-Round and Let Me Off!

Published
  • June 01 2003, 1:00am EDT

When I was in grade school, there was a piece of playground equipment called the merry-go-round. We would run as hard as we could while pushing the merry-go- round in a circle, and then we would jump on and ride. If we were lucky, we could get someone to stand on the sidelines and keep pushing, causing it to move faster and faster. The faster it went, the more exciting it got ­ until we could barely hang on any more. We knew that if we let go, we'd totally lose control and fly through the air to a very unwelcome landing.

When I think of the pace of activity – especially change – in our IT environments today, I am reminded of that merry-go-round. If you think of the pace of change in hardware and software technology, the demands of the underlying business, and the way we have to keep changing our processes and practices, the feelings are much the same, aren't they?

When your environment's needs start accelerating, initially it is exciting to be part of that change ­ and exhilarating to know that you are at the leading edge of your industry; however, at some point, chaos can set in. If there isn't a well-structured, carefully executed plan, we begin to feel as though we'd better prepare for that unwelcome landing.

Wouldn't you like to get a better handle on the pace and manner of change in your organization and business? There is a saying in many organizations these days that the one constant is change. Although that sounds like an oxymoron, it really appears to be true – and the pace of change is becoming more rapid every day. This article will share a little history and strategy regarding change.

For those of us who have been involved in IT for more than a few years, the need for and focus of technology, information and the processes that support them have evolved dramatically. Figure 1 illustrates the effect of the changes that have occurred in business and how those changes have impacted operational management needs, risks and vulnerabilities.


Figure 1: Changes in Business Delivery and Environment Drive IT Evolutions Needs

As organizations have integrated their use of information processing into the day-to-day delivery of products and services, there is more risk associated with outages, invalid output or even the ability to meet time-to-market requirements. The ability to manage to operational excellence and achieve operational maturity becomes more critical every day. Although there has been a lot of media attention centered on the dot-com failures, the reality is that the exploitation of Web technology for most companies has just begun to explode. Stable brick-and-mortar companies have realized considerable cost savings by managing their vendors, suppliers and customers through e-business. E-business and business continuity are two elements that are currently creating rapid changes in our IT environments.

How do e-business needs drive changes in our operations environments? Scientists tell us that systems have existed on planet earth for approximately 15 billion years; and ever since systems have existed, they have gone through what is called the universal cycle of change. It doesn't matter whether it is the system within a one-cell organism, a culture, a galaxy or an IT application or process, a continual process of systemic change is taking change – perceptibly or not. If you can identify the stage of change that an application, a process, a group or a technology is in, then you know what will come next. You can manage the next stage with intention, instead of waiting to see what happens and then reacting. Figure 2 illustrates the stages of the universal cycle of change.


Figure 2: Stages of the Universal Cycle of Change

As you evaluate your environment to determine what things you need to update, develop or reengineer, it is worthwhile to review where that element currently is in the systemic change cycle. Some organizations get into trouble by continually creating new applications, expanding and growing existing lines of business and processes, and believing that those two phases are the only ones important for their business. Managers are most comfortable when the applications and processes for which they are responsible are in the maturity stage, as that is the stage with the most stability. By then, most of the issues have been resolved, methods of handling growth and complexity are in place and few crises arise ­ minimizing vulnerability and risk. If all applications, processes and platforms could stay in that stage, life would be really good ­ or at least uneventful. However, change is going on in some element that will affect that application or process or platform. That change creates the next stage of change – turbulence. The stages of change are as follows:

  • Creation: Development of an application or implementation of a new platform ­ beginning with an idea, need or action.
  • Growth: The system begins to grow and develop, taking shape and form. It begins to be organized around the original creation, with additional business or marketing plans.
  • Complexity to Maturity: The system begins to take shape and form through continual growth. It becomes more complex to the point that it reaches a steady state, as when an athlete is operating in "the zone."
  • Turbulence: When the system becomes too complex in its growth and development, problems begin to develop.
  • Chaos: The system begins to fall apart and chaos results. The troublesome software, platform or process creates crises and business risk or vulnerability to the point that the welfare of the business may be threatened.
  • Dropping Off: Sometimes the system becomes so complex that chaos sets in. In order to move forward through a difficult change, you often need to eliminate unnecessary processes or sunset applications. All life forms in this universe allow for this natural dropping- off cycle to occur. Humans and human-created systems and processes are the only ones that resist this natural cycle of change.
  • Dormancy: Just as a tree stands without leaves in the brisk cold winter, all systems need time to readjust and stabilize after chaos and dropping off in order to set the tone for the next cycle of creativity and growth.

You may be wondering how the cycle of change impacts you. Some part of our daily responsibilities centers around system management or system engineering. The American Heritage Dictionary provides the following definitions of system:

1) A group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole; 2) an organism as a whole, especially with regard to its vital processes or functions; 3) An organized set of interrelated ideas or principles.

The better we understand the universal cycle of change and where a given process or system is in that cycle, the easier it may be for us to identify the appropriate actions to minimize our risks.

As businesses in the 21st century become more directly dependent on e-business and data center operation, the macro- and micro-systems included in those structures will be required to pass through this change cycle in an expedited fashion. This process can occur with extensive periods of turbulence and chaos or in a more controlled fashion, with intentional progress.

As companies begin to consciously make process improvements in their organizations, there is a temptation to make small, controllable changes that are believed to be achievable. Sometimes it is important to select smaller, achievable "chunks" of a higher level process to gain support and momentum. However, because of the significant changes in the business environment, many organizations will need to incorporate business process reengineering (BPR) into these change projects in order to appropriately change the overall business process, rather than making simple peripheral changes in application processing or administrative functions.

All change plans must also consider legacy processes that may need to be incorporated until they are replaced, until the line of business they support is sunset (dropped-off) or until they are recreated and stable ­ potentially in a phased approach (by application, by platform, etc.).

This kind of quantum rethinking of an organization's responsibilities and deliverables can sometimes be overwhelming. Where do you start? What kind of support or participation do you need to be successful? How can you depict your plan, your progress and the success of your efforts for both your senior management and the staff you'll need to have involved to support planned changes?

The following list provides steps to take to get started on this journey:

  1. Identify your key business requirements – both current and future. If your company is using a balanced scorecard or other strategic planning process, this should be fairly simple. If not, you should invite a few key business leaders to a strategy session to discuss their current and future plans for support from your organization.
  2. Identify the critical processes, applications and technology currently being used to meet your business needs. Without a good baseline inventory of as-is processes, applications and technology, it will be difficult to track what changes are being made.
  3. Identify or develop metrics for the current processes and deliverables. Using only output metrics will make it difficult to identify the savings that may be achieved. While you are planning changes and before any major change is introduced into the environment, determine a specific period of time during which to capture process and output metrics. This will provide a basis for measuring progress and the impact of changes.
  4. Map current processes, applications and technology in a diagram to identify areas of most vulnerability, risk, business impact or opportunity for improvement. Identify any work products associated with each and decision points that occur. Document these in a central repository or knowledge center.
  5. Select specific processes that can make the most positive business impact if updated. The business process needs will drive any required changes in the underlying hardware and software technology. Consider each process to be either an asset (creates value) or a liability (uses resources, but does not create value). Try to drop off those processes that are liabilities, unless they are necessary to support some critical process.
  6. Develop a sequential list of proposed process changes. You can't change everything at one time. Determine whether you want to take some small, easily achievable steps first or make some quantum, major impact changes to gain support within your organization. If a process supports a line of business that will soon be sunset (or dropped-off), then don't expend the time and resources to update it unless you are sure the benefits will outweigh the costs in the near term.
  7. Determine what metrics you will use to track and communicate the benefits of the changed process (including the underlying technology changes) and implement them along with the process and technology changes. Make sure that you are adding your metrics to your knowledge center. Define how the metrics are captured and how to interpret them. Retain metrics for some defined period of time for trending purposes.
  8. Determine what kind of training and communication will be required to make the process changes effective and implement them at the appropriate times before, during and after the changes. Some training and communication may need to be ongoing. Develop a communication matrix ­ and follow it.
  9. Define requirements for the change implementation to be considered successful and document those elements in the project work products. One of the greatest risks for change projects is unclear expectations as to what will define success. Make sure there is open agreement between stakeholders as to what constitutes project success.
  10. Ensure that all appropriate stakeholders are involved ­ whether actively or via regular project updates. If you determine that you don't have all the appropriate skills to complete your project successfully in house, look for experienced consultants who can bring required skills to the project.
  11. Develop and implement the identified changes. If you are implementing in a phased approach via one application or platform, benchmark the metrics ­ both before and after – to evaluate effectiveness immediately and continually. Adjust your plan for subsequent "chunks" accordingly.
  12. Communicate. Let stakeholders know what you are doing and why, and provide regular progress updates.
  13. Measure. Modify your project plan as necessary depending on the feedback you get. Unexpected results – things you didn't think of, missed or miscalculated – are feedback. Always look for anomalies that may require modifications after the initial changes are implemented, and communicate the change plans to all stakeholders.
  14. Celebrate success! Once the new process (and the underlying technologies) are created, growing and maturing, identify the impacts that can be celebrated and communicated. This can be on a one-time basis; however, sometimes communication on a change needs to be done on a continual basis for a period of time. The communication on that change can be discontinued once the process becomes mature, stable and accepted as status quo. However, ongoing communication of savings or benefit may be the critical factor in preventing backsliding into old processes and habits.
  15. Reevaluate and select the next planned change and repeat the steps.

There are additional resources that may be helpful at certain points in your progress. You'll want to determine if you have the appropriate controls in place for the processes you're implementing or those that you have determined are "keepers." There is an excellent document that was put together by the IT Governance Institute, called the COBIT (Control Objectives for Information and Related Technology). You may find these at www.itgovernance.org. You'll want to review these standards and determine which ones are most critical or meaningful for your particular business situation. This work was created in partnership with the Information Systems Audit and Control Foundation; therefore, it might be a good idea to include your corporate auditors in this review.

There's also a set of best practices for service support and delivery that was developed in the UK, called the IT Infrastructure Library, available online at www.itil-service-management-shop.com. The ITIL addresses six topics: service support; service delivery; planning to implement service management; ICT infrastructure management; applications management; and the business perspective. It is essentially a representation of best practices for IT service management comprising a series of books and information which provide guidance on the quality provision of IT services. If you're looking for a definitive work on best practices around data center management, this is a good place to start. Again, you'll need to review the consolidated standards and identify which ones are really appropriate to your business model at this point in time.

The final ­ but not the least important ­ step in managing this evolutionary cycle of change is to have fun. Enjoy what you do, accept challenges and get excited about the value that you and your peers bring to the organization.

My thanks to Kris Hallbom of The Money Clinic for the use of the "Universal Cycle of Change."

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