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Is today’s IT tomorrow’s slagheap or future gold mine?

by Mark P. McDonald  |  August 14, 2012  |  2 Comments

The question gets at the issue of legacy applications, information, infrastructure, etc.  Current IT philosophy, management practices and thinking is organized around the idea of building new things, adopting new technology, correcting the past, in other words viewing what you have now as a slag heap rather than a source of future value.

That my be stating it in the extreme, but if you just look at your current investment projects, their rational and the projects you are building support for next year and one pattern becomes obvious – we are annihilating today’s resources in a constant discounting of current capabilities and their ability to meet future challenges.

That approach worked for IT’s first 50 years, when technologies were displacing each other at a rapid and fundamental rate.   Technologies are still doing that, but the nature of those technologies is changing and that should change the nature of what we buy, what companies sell, and how we implement technology in the future. Here is what I mean about how technology is changing:

  • It is more information intensive than application intensive.  How you provide information to people and processes is what matters now as the core transactional logic is relatively stable.  So inform at the edge and transact at the core.
  • It is more standards based creating opportunities for linking and interoperability that did not exist before. This started with hardware and it is moving toward software where it should have a similar effect if you demand it from your software vendors like you have come to demand it in hardware.  No more ‘our version of ####’ that is incompatible with others should be allowed – you would not support it in hardware and you should increasingly not support it in software.
  • It is shifting from a purchased asset to a leased resource through developments like Software as a Service.   This is an asset that should extend and leverage your resource base rather than challenge it.  Immediate demands to ‘integrate’ a SaaS solution into the core is an opportunity to leverage the core and demonstrate its value.
  • It is disassociating itself, particularly at the customer end points as applications break into apps delivered over mobile devices meaning that unit of build is changing from ‘transaction systems’ toward ‘information apps’ that are quicker to build, have a shorter life, but meet an immediate need.

There are some fundamental changes required in shifting our thinking and our actions to focus forward on the future and deliver shorter cycle times and shorter time to results, and to leverage what we already have.    These include:

  • Buy less often and Reuse more – this sounds obvious but much of our capital allocation, budgeting and investment mindsets discount reuse and reward buying and installing new things. Its less expensive, leverages the resources you have, it’s less risky and it’s faster.
  • Realize the emerging multi-polar architecture model where different styles of computing are applied when and where they fit best rather than being everywhere.  Just because it is technically possible to run an ERP via a browser on a smart phone, it does not mean that you should or even try to make that a good experience.
  • Separate desire from need as many things are possible but few are profitable.  This requires reforming governance and moving it beyond an investment approval and Supreme Court of program management to a business transformation leadership team.  Benefits realization becomes the law of the land not the rubber stamp for capital expenditures.
  • Incorporate time into options, considerations and decisions.  IT cycle time, time to market, time to results are all too often discounted or ignored in technology decisions creating disappointment on the business side – ‘IT is late’ and disagreement on the technology side – “but you said you wanted X and X takes time.”  Add a time dimension to cost, scope and build schedule considerations for every project.
  • Create an IT productivity plan, one that concentrates on the changes IT will make to be more productive.  Productivity is different than cutting costs.  Productivity is the production of results with a set level of resource requirements.  Concentrate your plan on raising throughput – the number of projects completed, issues resolved, etc. – rather than the cost of service.  At the end of the day no one cares that its cheaper if you don’t give him or her what he or she need, except I guess the CFO.
  • Be a bad parent, by that I mean abandon marginal apps on a frequent basis along the upgrade path. The requirement to keep everything up to date is not practices elsewhere in technology – do you see people trying to keep their 386 machines running on Window 7?  No so why assume that every application needs to get on the upgrade bus.  This goes for old service request tickets if they are more then two years old then declare ‘backlog bankruptcy’ a term I heard from David Cearly and move on.
  • Stop using IT as a proxy for the CFO saying ‘NO.’ This is a bit controversial but important as many times CFOs, in their dark and private moments confess that they use IT as the stumbling block making the CIO say no, or I do not have the money rather than the CFO confronting Business Leaders.  This wastes time, costs everyone political capital and sows the seeds of bad behavior.  Its time for CIOs and CFOs to stop playing this game, if it’s a bad idea then it is a bad idea, don’t make the CIO unnecessarily carry the bad news just because a bad idea includes IT.

The fundamentals of IT: scope, schedule, cost, architecture, applications, interface, success, etc. are imploding and being replaced with new fundamentals based on technology: speed, productivity, standards, focus, triage, etc.  This posts shares some thoughts on what that means to those in IT.

Is this a valuable path for discussion?  What are you seeing, feeling and thinking about?  What are your suggestions for how the future will be different from the past?

We need new ways of thinking, managing and measuring technology as current approaches to IT and the current pace of technology advances is no longer compatible.  Consider the pending Windows Upgrade, which will require a lot of investment in people and hardware, disrupt IT and the business, etc.  How are you going to handle it – are you dumping the past on your way to the future?  Are you avoiding the issue, delaying the inevitable?  This is not just in terms of Windows but also in terms of all of your technologies.

Have you assumed that what you have today is slag and what you will get tomorrow is just another layer of slag in the near future?  The economics of this dump and run approach to IT are losing their luster and need to be replaced.

Is there a different way of thinking about this, one that does not result in IT landing in the landfill?

Category: re-imagine-it  strategy  technology  

Tags: it-leadership  it-management  it-strategy  technology-leadership  

Mark P. McDonald
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Is today’s IT tomorrow’s slagheap or future gold mine?

  1. Another great article, Mark! I am particularly attracted to the part about standardizing software and how that could transform what IT delivers. This is something we struggle with every day. We have repositories of data, but they are trapped within the proprietary formats of the software vendors. Some bits of data are in somewhat standard formats – TIFFs, PDFs, somewhat universal word processing and spreadsheet formats, standard indexes of content that can be accessed by different application platforms. But instead of being able to pick and choose the widget we want to act on that particular bit of data as you suggest, we’re stuck with whatever the one software vendor for that particular data repository gives us.

    Will the software vendors ever move to this sort of model? It doesn’t seem in their interests to do so, at least for the established players. Controlling my data gives them power over me, and they won’t easily give that up. Tell me, is there any hope of breaking the slagheap cycle?

  2. Rene Hermes says:

    Mark I do agree with your position that IT is moving toward speed and productivity to support business transformation. This is not to say that IT can ignore the traditional issues of architecture, schedule and application management, but there is a new layer on top of that traditional role which focuses on business transformation.

    A related post at talks about this very idea in more detail.

    As always, thanks for the insightful blog post, Mark

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