Monday, January 30, 2012

Regional Autonomy and Applications in the Enterprise

Unlike most of my rants and posts, I'm not going be able to propose a solution here.  This one has no solution.  It is simply a situation that exists in the VAST, and I mean VAAAAAAAAASSSSSST majority of "enterprise" business environments.  Read that as "big companies", "large organizations", or whatever you wish, but you get the point.

This is really an example of the Human Condition.  That is, the desire to achieve some semblance of "order" while also achieving some semblance of "freedom".  Be it Federal versus State, Public versus Private, Teacher versus Student, Owned versus Licensed, Urban versus Rural, or what have you.  It's a quandary that will never be resolved because it exemplifies Yin and Yang, which like Hot and Cold, or Black and White, will always coexist in the Universe.  We must always strive to adapt to the existence of such dualities as being necessary counterparts, rather than try to bend them to our Will.  The problem is: as Humans, we cannot avoid wanting to bend them to our Will, and THIS is the dilemma.

Allow me to digress...

You have a central IT operation that strives to maintain control over a consistent and predictable environment.  That is a noble goal.  It makes sense.  After all, a business cannot quantify it's operational successes and deficiencies without being able accurately quantify, and quantification depends entirely upon predictable elements upon which we can model situations and outcomes, hence the term "known quantity".  Without quantification, we cannot qualify a strategy either. Qualification requires quantification in order to provide a meaningful rationale.  It simply is not practical to forecast how long it will take, nor how costly it will be, to climb to the next level if you cannot determine what kind of ladder is being used.

The IT operation, typically being a cost center within a typical Western style corporate structure, is an inherent part of the operational fabric of a business.  In order to bolster the "bottom line" and keep costs down, they must commoditize many services and products internally.  The term "commoditize" comes from "commodity".  While defined as having a characteristic of being interchangeable (see Merriam-Websters definition), "commodity" doesn't specifically include a reference to quantity or uniformity, however, it can be argued that in order to be effectively "interchangeable" implies an aspect of uniformity and consistency.  The spirit of the use of this term is in the realm of achieving a standard unit which is easily replaced, and therefore easily mass produced by virtue of consistency and functional attributes or behavior.

To commoditize IT services and products is to attain a standard form, which is easily measured, and who's application is easily predicted in terms of it's impact on the business. Commoditization usually finds its way to the production environment in the form of "trouble ticket" systems, call centers, standard configurations of devices, SLA's, SOP's, standard software products (aka "Software Catalogs"), rate structures, tiered service plans, and so on.  How they are funded varies, but the goal is usually the same: Attain a predictable and stable environment.

The business operations outside of IT have their own agenda, often due to not being a cost center, but rather, a profit center.  While officially part of the same team, answering to the same overlords, profit center players often set different goals, use different metrics, and march to a different drum than the cost center folks do.  One aspect that differs most is that while the IT operation seeks to gain stability and consistency, the profit center is all about flexibility, and speed.  They are not just focused on these two aspects, they are quite often entirely consumed by them.

This is where the two worlds, IT and profit-center operations, diverge and often clash.  One wants to roam freely and hunt down whatever they want to kill.  The other wants to build a fence and establish order.

They may clash subtly, with only a smoldering collection of personality conflicts, or may experience emotional outbursts and clashes of great magnitude.  The range varies by personalities involved, pressures on each side to meet objectives, and the nature of the business in which they operate.  Indeed, the stories of these cultural divides in many companies is often legendary.  These are often what drive the most basic yet core cultural aspects of any company.  This is often because of personalities, allegiances, politics and strategy, typically ahead of stated business goals.

Not tangible enough for you? ...

The Marketing department at Contoso (sorry, a MCITP exam reference), has encouraged several of their younger and motivated staff to develop tools to allow them to meet crucial short-term goals, as well as help strategize for the longer term goals.  They cultivate a crop of applications and content over time that helps them shape their operational processes.  It might include Microsoft Access, Excel, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator or even Creative Suite bundles, maybe QuickBooks, and an entire army of lesser-known specialty products, that all fit like a puzzle for their needs.  The arsenal can grow staggeringly huge over time.

Life is good for the Marketing folks.

Then comes the IT department and their desire to upgrade the operating system and standard software bundle on all the company's computers to gain some improvements in manageability or capability.  Maybe they are looking to migrate from Windows XP and Office 2003 to Windows 7 and Office 2010, it doesn't matter, you get the idea.

The developers in the Marketing group announce their opposition to the upgrade because it will "break" many of their custom tools and processes.  This is said to be due to having built a large number of Access database applications with integral VBA, forms and reports.  The developers insist that tests have shown poor results when trying to upgrade them directly into Access 2010.

The time and effort required to upgrade and test them to work with the proposed upgrade is determined to be cost prohibitive by the Marketing department, so they insist IT, or corporate administration, pay for it.  The IT department objects to paying for it because the tools were developed outside of approved processes and by unqualified personnel.  Corporate Administration shakes their head at what they perceive to be a power play by both parties that feels like two children fighting over a ball.

The IT department argues that if they are going to pay for the upgrade, then they earn the right to take over the stewardship and maintenance of the application to avoid future mishaps.  They insist that they are better trained and equipped to develop software than self-taught college kids, and that they can apply process maturity (read: CMMI, SDLC) to improve quality and reliability.  They accede to the claims that this will slow down the process for implementing feature changes, but IT insists it's for a good reason.

The Marketing department argues against losing control, and to the slow turnaround by the IT processes.  They also worry about relative priorities, as a requested change might be priority #1 for Marketing, but #50 for IT in the aggregate queue.  Marketing panics over the thought of having to wait for the IT developers to gather requirements, analyze them, apply the usual project management sloth framework, and dedicate 0.25 man-hours to three developers, enter the request in a queue, and wait for notification that it's ready to test.  Then deal with the methodical, and tedious, project management process to get from Dev to Test to Production.

Marketing has depended upon their own predictability factor: having their own developers on a short leash with direct control over their own priorities.

Neither side budges until either (A) an incentive is introduced, or (B) a threat is introduced, which tips the balance to one side or the other.  Only then is there any significant movement towards resolution.  But when it's regressed to this emotional level, the eventual "resolution" is not what anyone had hoped for.

If the balance tips in favor of Marketing, the IT folks see it as a vote against their primary objective: control. If it tips in favor of IT, the Marketing folks see it as a vote against their importance and value within the overall priorities of the company.  The losing side, whichever it happens to be, sinks into a mental state of "good enough" and "why try harder" since they now see themselves as having been diminished.

And so the the battle begins.

Any of this sound familiar?  I have personally watched this scenario play out, almost exactly as described, dozens of times.  I still see it all the time.  It will never end.

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