Masters of change must be masters of pragmatism

How to reconcile the business's desire for flexibility with IT's need for stability.

How to reconcile the business's desire for flexibility with IT's need for stability.

Change management is nobody's favourite job, at business or IT-level. But, argues Ian Hugo, it should be the highest priority of all business and IT managers today.

No business can afford to ignore the need to adapt continuously to market changes. It's a point easily made and accepted. But the concomitant - that almost all business changes require IT changes that necessarily destabilise business service - is a lot more difficult to accept.

It is, however, true, and failure to address this constraint will cost businesses dearly. All change destabilises the IT systems on which businesses increasingly depend, yet businesses have to change as their markets do. The conflict is absolute, yet it can be satisfactorily resolved.

The key to a successful resolution is an acceptance that the problem exists and needs to be resolved. Outsourcing is not a solution, particularly when done out of frustration and anger - it simply passes the problem on to contract managers, who probably won't deal successfully with it either (or so the track record on outsourcing suggests).

What business managers must understand is that the impact of any business changes on IT has to be minimised if IT is to be as reliable and responsive as the business requires. The problem is, in fact, well understood in R&D circles and has given rise to an easy and close analogy with buildings.

In many ways, buildings are hard to change in line with people's frequent lifestyle changes. The key for a harmonious life is to understand the possibilities for change and allow for it as far as can be foreseen.

For instance, changing the furnishings in a house is relatively quick and simple to accomplish. Changing services, such as heating and plumbing, is more difficult but still easily manageable. Changing the internal structure of the building (knocking down walls, etc) is more difficult and takes longer.

Altering the external structure or fabric of the building is the most difficult and time-consuming task of all. Good architects understand this and design accordingly, while circumspect purchasers try to anticipate what changes they might need. Moving house (the equivalent to outsourcing) is always an option but can be the most disruptive change of all to make.

And that is precisely the mindset that business and IT managers need to adopt when considering how to make IT more responsive to business change. It's not about 'go faster' methods (faster ways of writing code or painting walls) but understanding the possibilities for and corollaries to change and positioning systems within IT as a whole to make them as adaptable as possible to changes that can be anticipated.

It's about accepting that old technology can be good (it's the most reliable), about understanding that 'freezing' systems which are necessary but have little impact on profits is better than following technology fashion, about adapting business procedures to standard packages rather than vice versa, and other such unexciting and certainly not leading-edge propositions.

These strategies won't do anything for a business or IT manager's ego or charisma. But they do point the way to a pragmatic resolution of the inherent conflict between what businesses need from IT and what IT can deliver.

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