Getting past the impulse to order everything

There’s a constant temptation in management more generally, and IT specifically, to presume that everything not only can be ordered, but that it ought to be.

Perhaps, for IT people, it comes from the origins of the work. The original data processing systems were typically from highly ordered and well understood simple processes, replacing accounting machines. Then IT added support for routine clerical transactions: counting inventory elements, paying and receiving monies, and the like.

These are all very orderly, very simple, and very routine.

As IT started to move closer toward information flows — both real-time and near-real-time in manufacturing and distribution, and analyses looking for relationships — and as “automating processes” became a normal rallying-cry, IT added a second type of order to its understanding of the world. Expert agreement over what good practice would look like emerged, and with it the regimes of the relationship manager, the enterprise architect, the project management office and the like. Application development became “solutions”, awash in use cases for ever-more-obscure events.

Along that route, existing order was surpassed, and conformance to a model of order became the norm.

Now understand, at the same time, other aspects of management were doing similar things. Enron led to Sarbanes-Oxley led to compliance departments and the drive to establish controls. Pay equity, affirmative action and disability accommodation legislation led to expansions of the human resources mission and the drive to survey and “prove”. Increasing legal battles over patents, methods, contracts and partnerships led to the need to document, store, and recall everything. Oh, and shaky economic times, first with the Internet bubble crash of 2000-02 and the housing bubble crash of 2007-09 and all the fall-out since, have put a premium on the mechanics of management: budgets, spending controls and the like.

In other words, if a little disorder appeared to surprise, pressing down hard on the accelerator marked “more order” was the response. Governance became policy promulgation: “we printed it, so we’re governing it”. Processes elongated in time, to take all the factors into account — and to accommodate the differing groups of experts that had to come to agreement to get anything done. Life, in other words, became far more complicated, even as we attempted to codify it into rampant simplicity.

For IT, the wake up call came when the bring your own device movement and cloud computing in its many forms led to the construction of entire parallel “worlds of IT” that broke organizational boundaries six ways to Sunday.

So here’s the reality: these are signs that not everything is ordered. In fact, from the point of view of innovation, protection against crisis, and creating the future for the enterprise, that very unordered world is as important as all the order that exists.

A response that says “more order, damnit”, is one that will lead the enterprise right off a cliff and into chaos. If it’s lucky, it’ll land on its feet and have its crisis cleanly. If not, the swirling cavity of disorder and dissolution awaits — or the resumption of “waiting for the bomb to go off” that a leader forcing even more order in the crisis to restore “stability” will bring.

Architecture, policy, projects and processes can’t impose order on the unordered. They can at best create a space for things to occur safely, and where failures aren’t fatal.

It will be everyone’s challenge, but IT’s facing it now. And, yes, it’s a governance problem. So will you use simple order (the strong CIO imposing his will), or complicated order (a web of ITIL-approved practices managed by experts)? Or will you try a complex response, and go with a principles-led business-driven governance board to create the space for things to happen?

Your choice. Your future.


About passionateobserver

I am a passionate observer of our society, the economy, and politics. Mostly I don't like much of what I see, so I write as a concerned citizen. To the fray, I bring a background in the philosophy of history, a lifetime's reading, a work history in information technology management, consulting and education.
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