fractalIT organizations are complex beasts – both in terms of the number of moving parts with their many subtle relationships and in the more scientific use of the term – as in complex systems theory.

Mastering 3 Fundamentally Different Value Propositions

IT Organizations have to deliver day-in, day-out on three very different value propositions:

  • Operational excellence for IT infrastructure.
  • Customer intimacy for leveraging business unit IT.
  • Product leadership/innovation for exploiting business opportunities and new operating models made possible through emerging technologies.

Leaders of IT organizations are under a punishing spotlight – the costs seem to continually increase, and the value is often hard to see.  60% – 70% of most IT organization’s activities are only visible when something goes wrong.  Much of the time, IT work is invisible.  The underlying technologies are all evolving rapidly, as are the business models through which technology is being delivered, including in-house managed, outsourced, off-shored, Software as a Service and Cloud Computing.

Increasingly, everybody thinks they know more about IT than their IT organization, and wonder why a PC that costs $400 in the local Best Buy and works right out of the box, costs $4,000 at work and usually does not work without the intervention of the Helpdesk!

Fuzzy Organizational Boundaries

As if those complexities were not enough, the boundaries between the work of the IT organization and the businesses it serves are both blurring and shifting.  What used to be the “official source” of all things related to IT is now just one of many sources – including self service, the computer jockey who hangs out in the mail room, the Geek Squad (from the Best Buy that just sold me that $400 PC!) and the World Wide Web – from which I can get free software by the bucketful, cheap hardware, and enough willing support and development resources to tackle just about anything!

And, to make matters worse, many IT organizations are falling behind in terms of what they make generally available and possible for their business partners compared with the state of the art.  It seems that people can accomplish just about anything via the Internet.  However, for many of them, they have to go home to do it!  When in the office, some of the more important and potentially innovative things people want to do are blocked.  Whereas the IT organization’s vision might say something about “enabling the business”, much of the time it feels more like a barrier.

Trying to Control the Uncontrollable

It is not surprising that the natural instinct of any IT leader is to try to control the chaos.  However, I believe that lens of complexity theory provides insights into more productive and less painful ways of controlling the environment than the draconian measures traditionally employed.  In particular, I believe that approaching IT organizations as the Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) they have indeed become will prove to be a more effective  paradigm for organizing and managing IT capabilities – creating a new order out of the chaos, if you will.

A CAS is a special cases of complex system.  As Wikipedia notes,

They are complex in that they are diverse and made up of multiple interconnected elements and adaptive in that they have the capacity to change and learn from experience.  Examples of CAS include ant colonies, the biosphere and the ecosystem, the brain and the immune system, the cell and the developing embryo, manufacturing businesses and any human social group-based endeavor in a cultural and social system such as political parties or communities. This includes some large-scale on-line systems, such as collaborative tagging or social bookmarking systems.

Features of complex systems

Complex systems have boundaries that are hard to determine, just like IT organizations.  They exhibit “memory” in that prior states may have an influence on present states.  This effect can sometimes be seen as an organization’s tendency to return to its current patterns of behavior, even when disturbed by an intervention such as a reorganization.  CAS exhibit “emergent” behaviors – behaviors that emerge from a complex interaction between CAS components, and can be impossible to predict.  For example, social networks around a particular topic or issue can emerge without any specific effort to create such a network, while attempts to foster a given community quickly might fade away.  Relationships in CAS are non-linear – a small force can have a large impact, and vice-versa – often called the “butterfly effect.”

This CAS lens presents a far more accurate perspective on IT organizational behavior than does the deterministic view that has dominated IT organizational design for the past 50 years or so.  In today’s emerging Web 2.0 world (and beyond) we need to manage IT as an organic capability, rather than through functional organization designs with their “lines and boxes”.

To be continued…

In subsequent posts, we will discuss the implications of considering the IT organization through the lens of Complex Adaptive Systems, and see what new organizational constructs might be more appropriate for a Web 2.0 world.  Please join me on this intriguing journey – tell us how you are seeing the lessons from nature and complex adaptive systems apply to IT management.

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