Does IT have a problem with people?
That’s a question I found myself asking, after listening to the speakers at a BCS event last week. It’s not a new question by any means, but when you consider a few topical challenges facing IT leaders and the IT industry, it’s one that perhaps gives an insight into the radical changes taking place through the technology supply chain.
In companies, the question goes to the heart of the changing relationship between IT departments and their users – the rise of “shadow IT” and “bring your own device” (BYOD) have come about as a rebellion against the historic “command and control” culture of most IT teams.
In government, it relates to the mantra of “user need” espoused by the Government Digital Service (GDS); it goes into how GDS wants to change the procurement and delivery of IT in Whitehall, and the irritation that seems to be causing for IT suppliers.
Let me explain.
One of the speakers at the BCS event was Will Whitehorn, Richard Branson’s right-hand man and currently president of Virgin Galactic, Branson’s ambitious space travel business. His simple explanation of Virgin’s approach to risk and failure should be mandatory listening for anyone involved in IT. He highlighted lessons that the IT sector – typically so risk averse – is only starting to learn.
From Whitehorn and other speakers, there were, for me, three key points to consider.
IT today is led by products not people
Whitehorn gave an example of Virgin’s focus on customer needs throughout its supply chain, which came from his time setting up Virgin Trains, and in particular its West Coast main line franchise. Virgin wanted a totally new train design to meet its goals for speed and passenger service – the end result was the Pendolino tilting trains in use today.
Whitehorn went to suppliers and outlined what their customers wanted, and told the train makers to design and build something to meet that user outcome. He felt that was delivered.
Consider by comparison the typical conversation between an IT leader and their suppliers, where an explanation of business outcomes and user needs typically leads to the offer of a “solution” based on a series of products. “You want to increase customer service levels by 10%? Here – buy my CRM software!”
The IT industry has yet to understand and manage risk well enough to meet that user need challenge – and its thinking all too often is not yet mature enough to go beyond products. There must be a huge opportunity for any suppliers that can genuinely offer user-focused outcome-based solutions in that way – but where are they?
IT thinks “big” when it needs to deliver “small”
“Risk means accepting failure” said Whitehorn, and explained how this was a fundamental principle behind the success of Virgin Group.
The company has grown big by keeping its parts small. Every Virgin-branded business operates independently of every other, so if one fails, the overall brand is not harmed.
Failure is a particular challenge for Whitehorn at the moment, after the tragic crash of Virgin Galactic’s test plane last year – a disaster that Whitehorn said is likely to be proved as human error, not equipment failure. But he said that Virgin always knew that going into space was likely to bring high-profile failures along the way, and that the end goal is worth the risk.
But the way they manage that risk is by keeping things small.
Compare that with the historic approach to IT delivery, of “big bang” projects specified to death at the beginning then failing to meet user needs once finally completed. The move to agile – or, better described as breaking down projects into smaller tasks, individually managed and delivered within an overall architecture (for those who recoil at the word “agile”) – is an overdue response to that monolithic approach to IT.
It’s not about waterfall vs agile – you can use waterfall techniques in smaller tasks as much as you can agile. You can see it coming through in the datacentre too, with the growth of microservices and container technology – keep things small, even within the constraints of something inevitably large such as a corporate datacentre (or better still just put it in the cloud).
The IT industry has always liked to use engineering analogies to explain how it works – that delivering IT projects is like building a bridge or a skyscraper. I’ve never been comfortable with that analogy. The best and better analogy I’ve heard recently is from consultant Mark Foden, who said IT has to be grown like a garden, not a bridge that has to be built.
A garden needs a design and an architecture – big plants at the back, small ones at the front; matching colours; hard landscapes mixed with soft – but each element of that garden is independent of the other while intrinsic to the whole. Each plant needs individual nurturing; each pathway laid and maintained. To make the whole garden a success needs different approaches for different elements – shady plants that don’t need much water; sun-lovers that need regular feeding; different flowers that bloom at different times as long as you treat each according to their needs.
In IT, you see too many adherents to one methodology – we are waterfall; we are agile; we use Six Sigma; we use Lean; etc. Ironically, IT is not binary; it’s not one thing or the other. It needs a flexible (and often complex) mix that recognises the different needs of each element, focused on users not on a finite set of supplier products that in reality vary very little from each competitive offering.
Trust your people
Perhaps it’s not surprising that so many IT leaders are not entirely trusted by their CEOs. Too many big failures, too much over-run, too many unhappy users. But it is true to say that too few boardrooms really trust their CIO.
Another BCS speaker, Phil Pavitt, global CIO of Specsavers and former HM Revenue & Customs CIO, made the point that the people in your own IT organisation almost always have the answers to the questions that matter – they just need to be trusted, and to have an opportunity to step forward.
Pavitt bemoaned the typical state of big corporate IT, with expensive consultants brought in to gather information from employees, then report back what they said as if the consultants were the enlightened ones.
I recently talked to a highly experienced CIO, someone with success in major multinationals, who had been employed to overhaul IT strategy and delivery at one of the highest profile organisations in the UK. He has recently left – of his own accord – as a direct result of a new leader of that organisation who insisted on bringing in a consultancy to audit every element of that strategy after it had been completed.
Risk aversion and a lack of trust towards IT are endemic. IT needs to earn that trust, and to convince CEOs to trust them.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that technologists feel more comfortable with neatly defined products that meet a clearly defined purpose. People are complex and unpredictable – how can you deliver IT to satisfy such flaky users who don’t really understand IT in the first place?
But this is where IT sits today – at the cusp of change from a product-focused industry to one that is able to deliver user-focused, outcome-oriented business (and personal) offerings composed of small, interchangeable components, with no single points of failure. IT still wants to dictate to its users; its users now know enough to say no.
Perhaps that’s the biggest challenge for the maturing IT community as it seeks to exploit the digital revolution and sit at the top table of business and government – to become less risk averse, to manage failure better, and to put people first.