The economy is coming alive again. The U.S. government released new statistics demonstrating that the fourth quarter of 2001 was stronger than we believed. By the end of the first quarter of 2002, many economists declared that a recovery was already underway. When you read this article, the recovery will either be in full swing or we will be headed for a double-dip recession as the pessimists predicted. The question is: Are you ready?
Information technologists need to be ready with a plan regardless of when the money begins to flow again. There is no generally agreed-upon course of action. We are justified in being apprehensive about the future and uncertain about what to do next.
Our profession experienced a large number of shocks to the system during the last 15 years. We endured three successive waves of radical technology flux. The mainframe gave ground first to the people-empowering desktop and then to the client/server platform. This technology suite was barely mature when the Web reset expectations and possibilities. Today we live with an inefficient and varied blend of all four environments. We have learned to cope relatively well with this self-inflicted burden.
Part way through this transition, we were hit with the Y2K scare. Y2K distracted us from our mission while siphoning off a frightful sum of money. I don't know what impacted our credibility more: letting it happen in the first place or the revelation that the scare was a bogeyman.
The dot-com bubble did more than provide a distraction; it took the wind out of our sails. We lost our innocent fantasy of technology as a savior. Even those of us who kept our heads lost something in the bargain. The crash of the technology sector brought the pain home and set the stage for the (possibly moderate) collapse of the economy as a whole.
This taught us the invaluable lesson of staying focused on the bottom line. Just as this was settling in, we were shocked to find out that the bottom line can't be trusted. In the aftermath of mega-corporate collapse, we had to face the fact that technology can't prevent accounting sleights of hand or other malfeasant behavior.
Then the real world hit us in the face as the World Trade Center towers came crashing down. Along with the horror, we felt a moment of pride when our fail-safe procedures allowed the surviving businesses to swiftly return to operation. However, it made us think really hard about what is important in life. Now is the time to apply this soul- searching to our profession. (See sidebar for a view of the information technology mission.)
Ride the Road to Recovery by Returning to the Real
Despite this picture of gloom, we are already on the right track. The technology matrix has stabilized with the Web firmly in command of the human interface and the mainframe reborn as a really big server with network services close behind. We have slain many dragons as evidenced by the widespread replacement of first-generation legacy systems with ERP suites and the ubiquity of intranets providing comprehensive access to shared information.
Now is a good time to throw down the gauntlet and reenter the arena. The industry buzz is tending in the right direction with an emphasis on discernable results and a renewed partnership with the business. However, the proposed tactics are often too tame.
I am suggesting nothing less than a reaffirmation of core values leading to a fundamental rethinking of our priorities. Somewhere under our technical banter and our go- with-the-flow attitude is a "techie" searching for something that is real something that proves our valued contribution to the business and society. Forget about "a return to basics" and "incremental change." Forget even about economic recovery. Think revolution. Get real.
Return to the Real in Mission
Abolish Elusive Goals
You can't be a player if you don't talk the talk. If your mission reads, "enabler of great technologies," the business will take you at your word and call you when something is broken. On the other hand, if your mission is to "create the marketing engine that will make (us) number one in online automotive sales," you are on the playing field.
The top IT goals of one major media company read as follows: integration, integrity and innovation. These aren't goals. They are hallowed principles and a great motto, but they are not achievable goals. The story was quite different at their fastest growing competitor. In that shop, goals mirrored and gave teeth to the strategic business plan. For instance: Build an integrated media delivery platform for all channels by X (date).
A commonly stated goal for data warehousing is providing easier access to information. Again, this is a principle not a goal. A better goal would be to become the single-source supplier of sales data within the enterprise. This is a laudable and more tangible goal that is difficult to execute, but commendable. What we are looking for is something such as: Provide an analytic platform to help the actuarial department reduce the cost and increase the accuracy of their risk assessments. A series of such tangible objectives are often the precursors of success.
Seek Higher Value Opportunities
Often the customers with the loudest voices and greatest pulls are close to the source of raw data. They are the ones most dependent on IT resources. These business units are critical but tactical. On the other hand, some are also providers of value-added data to others throughout the organization. The highest impact decision-makers are often several, sometimes many, steps removed from the last IT-managed source. IT feeds the pipeline yet is often unaware of the downstream uses where the value is greater.
Mission- critical data is generated and maintained on departmental databases and in desktop spreadsheets. Reorganizations and turnover can disrupt this informal information supply chain. Few participants are aware of the entire path that data takes to or from them. If IT is to regain the high ground in information management, we must create incentives for the business to cooperate in reducing this exposure; but first we must recognize the need to explore these channels.
Revel in Diversity
Information technology groups are often stretched thin and, therefore, seek to serve the widest common need. Unfortunately, this leads to least-common-denominator solutions. By definition, the most strategic needs are one of a kind and thus poorly served. The same resource pressure leads to enforcement of strict technology standards to lessen the support load. The more restrictive and inflexible the standard, the greater the number of unsatisfied needs or "pirate" applications. The right balance is achieved when we identify the necessary differences that define the diversity of real needs. We must change our mode of investigation from what is common (easy) to find the meaningful differences (more difficult, but also more rewarding).
Return to the Real in Planning
Produce Real Plans
Produce real plans with real deliverables over multiple releases. Over the course of the last decade, long- term multiphase planning diminished significantly. Only mega-projects such as ERP rollouts are planned as a sequence of deliverables.2 Even then, only phase one is laid out in detail. Often the start dates of later phases are simply guesses.
There are many factors at play here including economic volatility, the potential for organizational change and the increasing unwillingness to budget for longer than one year. Yet a dominant cause is the willingness of all parties to accept fuzzy requirements. We go to the conferences and hear the recommendation to build incremental investment plans with discernable bite-sized chunks, but what can you do when the user wants a vaguely defined "everything" all at once?
The answer is not easy either analytically or politically, but it is our responsibility to try. It is always possible to decompose a real need into timelined component parts. It requires the analytic skills to balance dependencies against the value of alternate deliverable sequences. It requires the political skills to sell it to all participants. In the end, a need is not real if it cannot be delineated. We all know this. Our most essential contribution is to stand behind the truth.
Avoid Phantom Projects
A phantom project has ambiguous scope or no real business deliverables. A proof of concept is often a mask for a technology trial that is, at best, a distraction for the business. Many projects now begin with the first phase being a loosely defined prototype. Often this is an excuse to develop requirements on the fly while bending to the pressure to deliver something soon. Prototyping is a valid design process, not a standalone project phase. Infrastructure projects are organized to deploy new technology without being directly tied to a business need. This practice, however, violates the most basic principles of serving the real needs of the business. These are all egregious examples of the tail wagging the dog that further endanger our already beleaguered reputation.
Build What Makes You Unique
Competitive advantage is a powerful concept that is often misunderstood and misused. Competitive advantage is achieved by bringing something unique to the market. Why then are most expenditures allocated to core and common systems? When we spend the big bucks on the next-generation accounting systems, why do we so often make them a clone of our old way of doing business? True competitive advantage is achieved by staying one step ahead of the competition and anticipating the market. This requires flexibility rather than the inertia of doing business the old way.
Avoid the NASA Paradox
Better, faster, cheaper that was the motto of the previous regime at NASA that managed to crash two consecutive probes into the face of Mars. Yet in these lean times, this contradiction in terms has crept into the vocabulary of information technology organizations: doing more with less. Team size is reduced while projects are consolidated and deadlines remain written in stone. These tendencies are eroding our morale and our reputation in equal measure. It is time we bite the bullet and make the difficult decisions. What do we cut and what do we keep? What is our definition of acceptable quality?
There is a silver lining (but no silver bullet). You can simultaneously be better/faster/cheaper if you introduce a real productivity boost. This is achieved only when you help the business change what it does. It is rarely achieved by helping them do the same thing with new technology.
Return to the Real in Architecture
Reaffirm the Role of Information Architecture
Architecture should be the core unifying discipline of information technology. During the information management stage of our evolution, we tried to produce the grand unified theory of architecture. The reality is we produced multiple conflicting approaches to architecture confounded by the differentiation of IT into myriad subdisciplines. The Tower of Babel effect set in as we splintered into separate tribes of architects (business, systems, data, technical and operations).
In the tangible world of construction, there is a common framework used by all architects to depict the multiple facets of design. No building anywhere in the world can be built without the aid of this universal rendition of materials, layers of design and construction rules laid out on a timeline. It is the commonality of this generally accepted process which allows the wonderful variety of delivered constructs that populate our world.
Real architecture is a vision of the whole in context over time. Complexity, pace of change, ambiguity of need, time to delivery and other factors are advanced to justify our "pragmatic" and piecemeal approach. As I see it, this is just another aspect of moral relativism serving as a cover for our loss of discipline.
Eliminate the Ivory Tower
In the real world, architects are working people in the heart of the creative delivery process. In the virtual world of IT, architects often create overly generic frameworks that the development community ignores with impunity. Our recovery requires the reintroduction of architecture into the core fabric of the development process. The best architects get their hands dirty and prove their value to the team and the project.
Reunify the Practice of Architecture
All the facets of conceptual design should be no more than different views of the anticipated deliverable. They must be consistent, complementary and complete, presenting a common context. This can only happen if they are combined again into a common discipline with depth and breadth. Our degree of sub-specialization is pathological.3
All the current factions of architecture suffer a common malady. They rely on static views. We create mural art which depicts the end point or the current state, sometimes both, but lacks a sequential step-by-step migration plan. Without the details of dependent sequence, no building could be constructed no matter how beautiful the final image. The more explicitly you map the road ahead, with alternate routes and destinations, the easier it is to accommodate change.
Manage the Flows
Our current methods of data architecture concentrate almost exclusively on storage. Data is either seen as a structure of elements supporting a specific application or a pool of subject- oriented content serving a more generalized analytic need. In the real world, information seeks to flow from point of origin to many downstream uses via a sequence of blending transformations. Data is best thought of as a fluid progressing from a raw state through multiple refinement processes as it flows by demand-pull to where it is needed.
The road to recovery in architecture requires a reintegration of disciplines and a renewed emphasis on dynamism. We must turn our attention from building dams to supporting the imperative that data flow flexibly through a constantly changing ecology.
The road to recovery is clouded by the path previously traveled. Our profession is barely 40 years old only now entering the second human generation. Yet in this short time, we experienced several fundamental changes in our mission revealing increasing levels of abstraction.
Level 1: Automation Focus on (re)building the business (execution role)
Our initial contribution was concrete and tangible with clear impact. Automation meant that machines (computers) began directing the action of other machines on the assembly line. The era of data processing took us one step away from the day-to-day activities into a monitoring role. The next stage, information management, opened the door to the world of analysis and modeling. We entered the realm of simulation. This increased our impact on the business while simultaneously planting the seeds for ostracism. We introduced practices and a vocabulary that became increasingly esoteric. The models became the reality for some in our trade.
Business units reacted by taking away the high ground of information management using their newfound tool: the electronic spreadsheet. Information management groups became information technology (IT) departments and the term "back-office" was coined. The technological (and semantic) turmoil of the last 15 years reinforced the new IT role. Many IT groups now define their mission as "providing enabling technologies to support the business."
We are now four levels removed from the action. We provide the technologies that support the processes which manage the operations that control the execution of business functions. Put another way, we transitioned from direct impact to supporting role. No wonder it is difficult to put a tangible value on our contribution. Our role is essential but ambiguous.1
Return to the Real in Design
Abandon the Batch Mentality
One of the perversions of our technological evolution is the introduction and perpetuation of the batch mentality. Early limitations on processing capacity and the natural tendency of some processes to operate within delimited time periods created the fiction that fixed- interval batch processing is the norm. In the real world, there is no natural periodicity even within a single business function. In today's world, the demand interval of information is variant and tending toward zero. The road to recovery requires total conversion to continuous processing.
Adopt a True Component Mentality
Vendors are providing a progression of ever-expanding suites of applications. For core and common needs, this is a natural course to follow. Custom development to support basic capability is no longer viable. The paradox is that adoption of these suites could lead to a monolithic hard-wired infrastructure that disables the essential flexibility we need to be responsive to change. The visionary vendors are aware of this dilemma and have a plan. They are converting their traditional functional designs to component services that will ride on a platform of shared, networked capabilities.
This presents information technology groups with the best opportunity to date to reaffirm their contribution and reinvigorate their partnership with the business. All forward- thinking businesses are actively considering which processes are "defining capability" and which are commodity functions. Despite the short-term failure of the generic application service provider model, the contracting of commodity business services will accelerate. The rationale and economics are compelling. This presents an excellent opportunity for information technology to reenter the realm of real business architecture evolution.
Pursue Virtual Integration
Redeploying technology as isolated yet interoperating services transforms the role of IT from development to integration. An essential design concept of services implementation is to abandon the concept of point-to-point interfaces. Real integration is virtual. This may seem oxymoronic at first, but it provides clarity of action to obliterate a disabling orthodox notion. Until now, integration was conceived as tying systems together. Effective integration is achieved only when services operate independently in a context of translated semantics. This is a fancy way of saying our role is to create the framework to transform the independent schemas into a cohesive whole.
Return to the Real in Spirit
The road to recovery is more challenging yet empowering than we first imagined. The opportunity exists for the first time in 20 years to retake the high ground. Now is the time for information technology groups to throw off the degenerate role of "enabling capabilities" and reenter the arena as comrades in arms. The processing structure of all organizations will undergo a radical transformation. We need to be in the thick of it. We need to construct a reality-based mission with concrete planning. We need to think dynamically in order to architect the flow of information. As services decouple, our dominant contribution will be to provide the unified view of the business in its extended ecology. We need to return to the real.
- Before the angry e-mails start coming in, let me state that this is a general case supported by broad observation. There are obvious cases of business/IT partnerships that were executed jointly and strategically. For instance, FedEx and Wal-Mart created innovative businesses founded, in part, on a groundbreaking technology. Yet these successful alliances tend to define the rule by exception. The rule is supported by the fact that we naturally juxtapose the terms information technology and the business.
- Many proposals masquerade as true multiphase plans but are really insubstantial shells. A recent RFP we received called for four phases: 1) Select a query tool; 2) Conduct a proof of concept [with an unspecified department]; 3) Implement several data marts [for a to-be- defined set of departments either in parallel or sequentially]; and 4) Integrate the data marts into an enterprise data warehouse. This RFP did not provide a scope, time frame or real deliverables! As for selecting a query tool prior to investigating the needs, don't even get me started! The shame is this is not an aberration.
- This is yet another position sure to create controversy, and I welcome it. Effective specialization occurs when it allows you to find the one person who can best serve your needs. Pathological specialization exists when it increases the number of participants required to complete a work effort. I believe it can be proved that IT productivity is inversely related to the degree of specialization and the complexity of the organization.
The author encourages your comments/questions regarding this article. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Haisten will follow this article with a series of online articles entitled, "What's Next?" He has also written a number of other online editorial relating to topics discussed in this article. Please visit www.dmreview.com and search for Michael Haisten to access his contributions.
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