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This is the Dawning of the Age of IT Enlightenment

IT Protection Racket

Ever since the demigod called IT fell from its pedestal in the eighties, the relationship between IT and the business has been dysfunctional. Disgruntled that, despite having done its best, it was blamed for losing the plot, IT adopted a defensive “just tell us what to do and then it’s your fault when it goes wrong” attitude. “And by the way, you have to sign these incomprehensible service level agreements, follow our Kafkaesque procedures and pretend to understand our techno-drivel, otherwise something might happen to your servers. You don’t want something to happen to your servers now, do you?”

Imaginary Enterprise

To make things even worse, the poor folk in business operations – you know, the people who actually do something useful – feel misunderstood. Not only by IT, who they avoid like the plague; but also by their managers, who spend most of their time in the management factory[1], isolated from reality and managing their imaginary enterprise, rather than what actually goes on.

Business Prevention

Tie this all together and what have we got? Managers who don’t have a clue what business operations actually needs, and even if they did, couldn’t articulate it to the IT department anyway. Then we’ve got IT developers who don’t do listening because they’re too busy sprinting from backlog to stand up, building a stockpile of potentially shippable and minimally viable product increments, whatever they may be.

We don’t know what IT operations are doing because they’ve hidden behind their demilitarized zone of unfathomable processes that prevent the framework fundamentalists from having to talk to the dorky developers. It’s hardly worth mentioning the IT architects because they don’t do anything related to reality anyway. So who’s actually doing something useful? The poor sods in business operations who are doing their best despite all of these business prevention initiatives.

Dark Ages of IT

It’s only in hindsight that most of us realize that we were trapped inside a box, towing the corporate line because “that’s the way we do things around here”. We did this even though it went against our gut feelings, which we ignored in order to avoid dissonance.

In fifty years’ time, will we look back at this period as the end of the dark ages of IT? The good news is that, slowly but surely, people seem to be realizing that it’s time for a change. A radical change. A new way of looking at things, instead of obsessively looking at new things in old ways, and being disappointed that it doesn’t get them anywhere.

I call it the IT Enlightenment Movement. In the following three paragraphs I’ll share some thoughts about the characteristics of the systems that we deal with, the community of people who are part of the larger ‘system’, and finally a better way of working.

Embrace Uncertainty

So what constitutes this new and enlightened approach? For starters I’d say that it’s about embracing uncertainty. The world is imperfect and unpredictable, so systems with uncompromising algorithms are doomed to disappoint. Unless you just use these systems in certain circumstances, within certain constraints, and apply more flexible and responsive approaches when things are clearly unpredictable, if not completely inexplicable. I find Dave Snowden[2]’s concept of “managing the evolutionary potential of the present” a much more plausible and attractive approach than designing the future and trying to create it with a rigorously managed project plan.

Connect the Disconnected

My second point concerns connecting the disconnected[3]. I’m thinking primarily about the workers (an honest name for an honest role) who we in IT quaintly refer to as users. In fact, I’d like to extend the scope of ‘disconnected’ to include the enterprise’s customers, providers and partner and other stakeholders. Anybody who is shackled to the enterprise’s digital hologram, both from within or without, yet feels disenfranchised from its analogue soul. Unless we have a better understanding of what they think and feel about their digital engagement with the enterprise, we can’t expect to co-create value with them. The good news is that we have a favourable wind. The world is becoming increasingly transparent, exposing – and hopefully contributing to rectifying – the asymmetry between consumers and providers.

Demolish the Management Factory

Finally, organizations should start demolishing the management factory. Let the experts take the lead. Foster self-organizing multidisciplinary teams. While you have to have a way of dealing with the inevitable Wally[4], most people respond to being given trust, responsibility, and a worthy goal. Dan Pink’s mantra “autonomy, mastery and purpose”[5] as pointers for high performance and personal satisfaction certainly rang a bell with more than 10 million YouTube viewers. It’s surprising what a difference it makes when people actually care about what they do.

IT Enlightenment

The very nature of a movement like IT Enlightenment is that it is organic. It would be misleading and contra-productive to attempt to define it comprehensively or prescriptively. Please regard the previous points as no more and no less than examples of a more realistic way of making better investments in IT, and getting more value out of them. If this appeals to you, you will undoubtedly come up with your own enlightened ways of managing IT.

[1] John Seddon, referring in various presentations and publications to excessive and contra-productive focus on internal control, planning, budgets, performance contracts, targets and reporting
[2] David Snowden,
[3] Aleksandr Zhuk, speaking about Digital Trust at the Dutch National Management & IT Symposium in December 2015
[4] Wally is a fictional character from the Dilbert comic strip who is so deeply jaded that instead of doing any real work, he spends all his time and effort successfully gaming the system
[5] Daniel H. Pink in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and YouTube (RSA ANIMATE: Drive)
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