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Mired in IT Incrementalism

IT professionals often muddle through as well, spending most of their time on short-term fixes. Doing so pleases end users, especially those whose productivity is sapped by what seem to be solvable problems. The trap is that focusing on short-term problems inhibits the organization from paying much attention to more strategic information-management issues.

Organizations practice IT incrementalism for many reasons, but three stand out. First is the post-bubble belt-tightening that has many executives espousing hollow concepts like "working smarter" and "doing more with less." In most IT shops, even the ones that could stand to lose weight, the reality is more like "working longer hours" and "doing less with less." It's like a politician pledging to balance the budget by eliminating government waste. It sounds great, but it isn't credible. Faced with shrinking budgets, most IT professionals focus on operational and tactical problems. There's no time to think long term.

A second factor relates to the way system lifecycle costs are managed. Most capital assets, from notebook computers to switches and routers, are depreciated over a period of years. If an organization has 1,000 Ethernet edge switches, it's common to estimate their useful life and plan for rolling upgrades. That might mean 20 percent of switches get replaced each year. Such a strategy makes it nearly impossible for an organization to change course. It locks it into incremental upgrades.

A third motivation to muddle comes from forces inside the IT organization, especially the disconnect between administrators and engineers who design and operate systems and those who support the user community. The front-line support staffers, especially those who've lived through a botched upgrade or two, are understandably risk-averse. They value stability above all, and their influence rises with each successive system misstep. After a while, the best and brightest system architects give up on new ideas. Instead, they muddle.

Meeting the Challenge