This article is Part 4 in our Information Systems series.

Part 1: 6 Questions Executive Teams Should Be Asking About Their Information Systems

Part 2: Time To Reengineer IT – Again

Part 3: How Things Should Work

Part 4: New Approaches, New Attitudes (current)

Part 5: Core And Edge

Part 6: The Third Way

Part 7: Grapevine

Part 8: Better Methods At Work

Part 9: Toward A New Normal

New Approaches, New Attitudes

The game has changed. Technology has moved from barrier to enabler. The old trade-offs among scale, speed, and cost are evaporating. We can store, process, and transmit almost unimaginable amounts of data at extraordinarily low cost. The modular and connectable architectural models of virtualization, cloud computing, and the Internet itself are prevailing. Advanced middleware is automating interfaces, thus enabling access to wide-ranging resources through standard browser portals. Advances in distributed security move us to anytime/anyplace computing on any commonplace device. Social media and other technologies of collaboration are transforming business processes, including how we develop and manage information systems.

Step back, look at those changes together, and you see that IT is working in a very different world from just a few years ago. It is now possible to:

  • Take a platform approach.

    A platform is a set of assets whose roles and connections are defined so that they are all available to one another and can be configured in a variety of useful ways. Rather than being dedicated to one way of doing things, a platform is literally designed for change. But that doesn’t mean sacrificing efficiency. One of the ways the technology assets are configured is to support today’s business operations. And because local improvements and fixes are so much easier to accomplish, a flexible applications platform can out-perform dedicated systems tuned to work just one way.

  • Take a migratory approach.

    The platform approach is not a one-time, wholesale redesign of the technology architecture, but the problems are largely perceptual. Many IT people still think in terms of big projects to implement big designs. That’s why so many large “service-oriented architecture” projects fail – they try to implement too much of a platform at once. The platform approach is not a one-time, wholesale redesign of the technology architecture, but rather a new set of design, development, and operating principles to be followed henceforth. Middleware, cloud, and other technologies enable you to migrate – aggressively if you like – by incorporating selected applications and other assets as you go. That, of course, lowers both cost and complexity barriers to action.

So technology is not the barrier. Systems development and management methods are not the barrier. The skills to exploit newer technologies and methods may be a barrier to progress in many companies. However, the biggest barriers are long-held attitudes and assumptions (some of them unstated) regarding the endeavor we call IT. Those attitudes stifle both understanding and ambition about what businesses can accomplish with technology, starting with the assets already in place. Here are three progressive attitudes that business and IT people alike should embrace:

  • Things change.

    And we don’t know what all the changes will be, no matter what our powers of prognostication. That’s obvious and inevitable, and yet most information systems assume the opposite. Information systems cannot merely automate today’s ways of operating – they must also keep tomorrow’s options open. If they are not flexible and changeable, they paint us into corners, and all hell breaks loose when business change forces systems change. A flexible platform keeps business options open and enables rather than impedes strategic change.

  • Learn as we go.

    We don’t know how things will change, and we don’t know what solution works best until we try perhaps several. Yet traditional applications development methods assume the opposite: business people “specify” what they want, then IT people build to those specifications. The problem is that people often don’t know what they want or what the alternative possibilities might be until they try doing something differently. It’s far more important for business capability to be deployed quickly and modified easily than that it be specified completely up front. The new formula: build based on what you know, learn and improve through experience, and drive down the cost of modification.

  • Fit the system to the person.

    Despite all the effort that goes into having users help specify systems, at the end of the day the users have had to adapt to whatever the technologists deliver. Business people need training in new workflows – that makes sense. But it’s wasteful to train people to use complex and unintuitive interfaces because the specifications included too many bells and whistles. This matter is coming to a head with mobility and the consumerization of IT. Many employees are willing to bend or even break policy in order to use the devices, interfaces, and applications they like. You maximize productivity with applications flexible enough to handle workflow variations, plus interfaces flexible enough for users to customize.

What does it mean to embrace these principles? It means that following them is the rule, not the exception, and that exceptions are difficult to get. Every IT initiative begins with asking how the deliverable and the method of delivery stack up against the principles. Most importantly, the business adopts these principles. A systems and technology platform is a recurring business asset, not a one-time IT project. As a business migrates to its platform, the problems of “renegade systems” and “shadow IT” diminish – both because the platform is open to more local applications, and because IT can deliver new business capability so much faster.

Up next: Core And Edge