"In, out, in, out, shake IT all about, do the hokey-cokey and turn around. That's what IT 's all about!" - is surely the most apposite description of the Information Technology function that has been recorded.
Dramatic u-turns and changes of direction are hardly a rarity in IT. Shell recently made front page news when it announced plans to bring its IT function back in-house as a cost centre, after running it as a separate profit centre for a number of years. In the same week, futures exchange Liffe reported that it was about to do exactly the opposite.
Over the past ten years, I have helped clients to outsource their IT, in-source their IT, manage their IT internally and various combinations thereof. I cannot recall visiting a computer department that has not experienced a significant shift during the previous two years. Perhaps that is a consequence of my role as an interim executive dealing with companies in transition, but I believe it has more to do with a universal uncertainty over how IT really fits into companies and how it should be organised.
Management experts have been divided over this subject ever since companies could afford their own computing facilities. Consequently, there is no IT cookie-cutter model available for chief executives to choose the right shape and size for their business. Instead we have constant doubt and frequent reorganisation.
I used to have a poster behind my desk displaying one of my favourite
"I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress, while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation."
This was written almost two thousand years ago in 60 AD and shows that the problem of organisation has been around a good deal longer than our bits and bytes. This may leave you thinking, "why worry, let's just get on and do it; after all a change is as good as a rest".
That course might be acceptable, if we knew what we were doing and if our IT departments were not quite so vital to our businesses. All but the most minor change has inherent risk, naturally. Major change usually involves major risks, which need to be carefully mitigated and managed.
IT professionals tend to go to great lengths when managing risk for business system changes and migrations, but when the change involves IT, their efforts often fall short. I have seen some very substantial reorganisations that began without even seeing the back of a fag packet.
Some reorganisations are unavoidable, such as those needed to effect mergers and acquisitions, but many are not. They are often driven by little more than the desire to do things differently, or perhaps at lower cost. Unfortunately, the anticipated savings are not always realised because the costs are not actually eliminated but merely displaced to other parts of the organisation.
Eventually the displaced costs will be recognised, analysed and, more often than not, form the basis of a business case for yet another reorganisation. Collectively, we waste millions every year in unproductive, cyclical reorganisation. No wonder our IT budgets never seem to get any smaller.
Organisational change may bring risks greater than cost, chiefly through the loss of much good process and co-ordination due to poor planning and management. Stated simply, we too often throw out the baby with the bathwater because we don't approach change properly.
Moving regularly from company to company, I have seen the outcomes of many such reorganisations and heard the survivors' tales. After a few weeks working with a client, I will often challenge an obviously absent process within the IT function and question its omission. Invariably, the response is "yes, we used to do it that way until out last reorganisation".
On other occasions, there may be widespread ignorance of exactly who should be responsible for a particular process. Yet when you explore a few dusty corners, the necessary documents are still there in a drawer or cupboard, just fallen into disuse after their last owners were re-organised away from them.
Even if your IT department is an exception, by which I mean well documented, clearly defined and understood, then the re-organisation process has yet another sting in the tail: self-preservation for the individuals involved.
Impromptu reorganisation is a cue for a number of key players to become pre-occupied with making sure that their personal interests are preserved during the transition. Obviously, the time spent jockeying for individual position and power must be at the expense of other activity, probably "business-as-usual" processes.
However, it is not just a problem of managing the empire-builders. Many of your other valuable IT people will be too busy sorting out where they fit into the new scheme of things and understanding what is expected of them. Such behaviour is fundamental to human nature. It cannot be avoided but it can be mitigated and circumvented by perceptive managers.
In the short term at least, any reorganisation will mean that things are bound to get worse, rather than better. Performance will be degraded generally, as a natural consequence of change, and individual commitment may be diluted.
In the longer term, like most things in life, the successful outcome of an IT reorganisation will depend as much on the quality of the preparation as on the execution itself. Any business that thinks it can successfully reorganise its IT department without introducing a disproportionate amount of risk, is deluding itself.
Of course, if some of you take this message to heart, there may not be quite so much change in the future. Which might mean less work for me, and others like me. Now there's a worrying thought.
Colin Beveridge is an interim executive who has held top-level roles in IT strategy, development, services and support. His travels along the blue-chip highway have taken him to a clutch of leading corporations, such as Shell, British Petroleum, ICI, DHL and PowerGen.