Broken Enterprise IT

For as long as I have been doing technology, I have watched enterprise IT and said to myself “this seems incredibly broken, why do people put up with this?” This includes the period when I was doing consulting and running teams that specifically had to mould their reporting and processes to fit into the requirements of government (enterprise) IT. Actually doing it didn’t make it seem any more sane.

At this point, I should explain what seemed wrong. The processes around IT actions in the enterprise environment (and my experience was in government, but my glancing exposure to Fortune 500 environments didn’t uncover any great differences there) all seemed geared towards slowing down progress. The many layers of approvals and plans, the disconnection between operations and development, the migration of core technical decisions upwards to non-technical management staff.

Compare the outputs of a start-up company, turning out an aesthetically pleasing piece of software usable by ordinary folks within a timeline of a few months to that of an enterprise system building team that may or may not deliver something ugly and slow in a couple years. What’s different? The people are generally of the similar capability and intelligence. But the culture and processes they are embedded in are radically different.

As a 25-year-old smart-ass I was always pretty sure a team of 5 working outside the enterprise IT structure could produce a better system faster than a team of any size working within it. As a 40-year-old smart ass, for some reason I still haven’t altered that conception. I do, however, have more sympathy for the folks working within the system. As a 25-year-old I naturally assumed they were just stupid. As a 40-year-old I now see them as trapped. Very smart, capable people, stuck within a system that seems built to frustrate and block them from actually Making Their Computers Do Useful Things for Other People.

The genesis of the enterprise IT homunculus seems semi-explainable. If you put a large collection of detail oriented control freaks (hello, computer people) into a single organization, the need of the (detail oriented, control freak) management to avoid non-linearity in their organization will naturally lead to layer upon layer of process and reporting. Otherwise, how can the CIO sleep at night?

But even if the genesis is explainable, that still doesn’t make the result good, or the end state desirable. This is still a system wasting the potential of the greater number of its participants. The non-technical masters of these organizations (CEOs, other upper managers) see clearly that they are broken (they manifestly cannot deliver), but the fixes only seem to make things worse: my organization is broken, so I’ll outsource to another organization; my organization is broken, so I’ll bring in consultants (who carry the same organizational biases); my organization is broken, so I’ll go ISO9000 (embrace the disfunction!).

The British Columbia government seems to be in the middle of the outsourcing “fix” right now. The remains of the central IT department are being reviewed for their incredibly high internal pricing, and meanwhile major server and network infrastructure is being outsourced to HP and shipped out of province. The irony is that, should the central IT department be found to be “too inefficient” the “solution” will be another round of outsourcing to a contractor who will end up being (contractually) largely immune to any review.

I think we are only a few years from a serious IT revolution in the provincial government, and by revolution I mean the peasants are going to take up their pitchforks and torches and storm the keep. More on that tomorrow.

In the meanwhile, I am collecting stories of IT transformations that have actually worked. It seems like there are very few if any stories out there. The super-star CIOs seem to rely on various combinations of smoke and mirrors to burnish their reputations, very few seem to have attacked the root of the IT cultures in their organizations. But I would love to hear some stories about those who did and succeeded (or failed).