I've been on the Beer all week and I feel thoroughly refreshed, because the Beer I've been imbibing is not a thought-numbing alcoholic beverage but a thought-provoking book* by cybernetics guru Stafford Beer.
So far I have only scratched the surface of Beer's work and I am looking forward to learning more about his extremely perceptive insights into organisational behaviour and systems performance, essential topics for all serious information technologists.
I believe that all of us in the IT business need to understand much more about the real nature of systems, not just how technology works and how to implement it; but to understand the nitty-gritty of how people and organisations work together before we can really deploy successful business systems.
This proposition is so fundamental to our professional raison d'etre that you would expect "organisational behaviour" to feature strongly in our professional development. And yet, like many other such "no-brainers" we seem to bumble along in blissful ignorance without ever thinking about this vital ingredient.
Which is no doubt why we still hear colleagues in a conundrum reflecting ruefully that "the technology is the easiest part, the real difficulties are people issues…" because we never take the time to analyse the whole system.
All too often our "systems focus" is heavily biased towards two major centres of gravity: product specification and the organisation chart. Too often we concentrate our efforts on cobbling together an affordable compromise between an IT system and our corporate management structure without ever thinking that we might need to change more than the technology if we are to fulfil our objectives.
For sure, there has been tremendous activity around cultural transformation in recent years and many businesses have invested heavily in such transformation programmes, believing that simply doing things differently will dramatically transform their fortunes.
The sad truth is that too much emphasis is placed on the cultural aspects of the transformation and the organisational transformation remains neglected.
It seems we do not like to upset the apple-cart completely so we concentrate on finding ways of being nicer to everyone rather than doing some painful thinking about how to remove costly process friction.
Nevertheless, we need to recognise that it is so much easier for ambitious corporate visions and transformational value statements to flourish in an optimised, efficient organisation.
I think the IT department can make a greater contribution to organisational optimisation, providing we adopt a much more holistic approach to our systems architecture by looking beyond the easy options of product specs and the organisation chart, towards re-engineering the organisation if necessary.
Simply continuing to compromise ourselves by finding the best IT fit for the status quo without regularly reviewing and adjusting the underlying system of process, people and purpose, is a certain recipe for ongoing disappointment with technology investment.
If you are still not convinced you need to take positive action, I will leave you with a favourite nugget of wisdom from Stafford Beer, who states that the purpose of a system is what the system does, not what it is supposed to do, or more importantly what it continually fails to do…
Maybe we should all adopt that profound sentiment as our personal mission statement and remind ourselves why we are in IT: to add persistent value to a successful organisation.
* "Diagnosing the system for organisations" by Stafford Beer.
Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at email@example.com
This was first published in August 2004