Mired in IT Incrementalism

Front-line support staffers who've lived through botched upgrades are risk-averse. Instead, they muddle.

Dave Molta

September 16, 2005

2 Min Read
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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 ChallengeReversing the march toward incrementalism isn't easy. It requires discipline, from the front lines to the CIO. When it's time to tighten the budget, IT research and development must be a priority. Cutting this R&D is akin to a software company eliminating its best programmers during tough times. It may maintain a great customer-facing sales organization, but eventually it has nothing anyone wants to buy.

A second strategy is to develop partnerships. Most organizations, even if they have the money to upgrade all switches, don't have the people to make the change in a timely manner. By tapping external resources, they gain flexibility, but they must plan for obsolescence. This tactical outsourcing keeps strategic control of IT inside the organization, where it belongs, while off-loading much of the heavy lifting.

Finally, there is the need for leadership, at every level of IT. In a corporate culture where IT is seen as a commodity, CIOs must communicate IT's strategic value. The leadership imperative is, of course, the greatest challenge of all.

Dave Molta is Network Computing's senior technology editor. Write to him at [email protected]

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