'One size fits all' doesn't work in IT

Take it from someone who should know - flexibility doesn't work in IT. This means accepting that new versions of software are a...

Take it from someone who should know - flexibility doesn't work in IT. This means accepting that new versions of software are a way of life, and that IT is always unfinished

Ever since the first line of binary code was penned, users have wanted software - or rather the benefits software was going to deliver - ever faster, writes Julia Vowler.

It's perfectly feasible for even the most cerebrally-challenged business manager to be dragged to a construction site to see the bricks and mortar going up, or a bridge reaching half-way across a river.

But it takes an act of faith greater than that required to believe in Father Christmas for the same business manager to understand that, as software metrics expert Capers Jones points out, writing a major system is the equivalent of building an oil tanker - a big job.

And then, of course, apart from the bottomless pit of software development, there is the fact that whereas a business strategy can be changed in a single utterance from a chief executive, changing the software that underpins the execution of that strategy is a different kettle of fish altogether.

You are on a hiding to nothing if you are trying to build a system that can be changed at the drop of a hat, believes Mike Wright, group IS director of global insurance broker Willis.

Wright's training as a biochemist taught him that stable corporate evolution is a constant balancing act between building up and breaking down the constituent products - IT systems included.

Flexibility, he says, is a trap IT habitually falls into and suffers for. To begin with, it's expensive. Nothing in life is free, and that includes the luxury of flexibility. It incurs a premium.

Wright seeks to avoid having to pay that premium "by not trying to design-in flexibility," he says.

He also argues that it's a premium that's not worth paying because it doesn't pay off. "We are constantly trying to design-in future flexibility, and constantly failing," Wright warns.

That's because, he points out, the rapid pace of business change means that IT "has to be flexible outside of what we thought we needed". But trying to pre-empt all business possibilities is a recipe for disaster in his book. Instead of trying to make IT as flexible as business, he advices almost the opposite - a deliberate policy of "change and chuck".

So, instead of one unobtainably versatile IT architecture and systems portfolio, it is better to simply replace IT systems whenever business needs to change pace, direction or strategy. "I'm increasingly of the view that never again will we have a finished system - IT is constantly under repair," argues Wright.

This was last published in January 2000

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