Why do so many of us hate our IT Departments?

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I got the surprise of my business life the other day when I sent a set of three questions about our IT Department to all our senior managers. LLP Group has its headquarters in Prague and offices in nine other countries around the world. We’ve centralised IT support and systems and we set standards that all our local offices must follow.

I asked:

  • Is there anything that you find frustrating about the service our IT Department provides and that you believe should be improved?
  • Is there technology that we should be using (and that other companies like LLP Group use) that our IT department isn’t telling us about or planning that we should use?
  • Is there anything that you manage or provide yourselves that you think our IT department should be managing or providing instead?

ITDept

Now, when you ask about your own company’s IT you must usually brace yourself for criticism. Criticism has been abundant in the past. Complaints have included:

  • ‘You’re so Prague centric and you never have time to deal with our concerns in …..’
  • ‘Security is dire’
  • ‘Their approach is so old-fashioned, we should have outsourced everything to the cloud’
  • ‘The network is horribly slow’
  • ‘They don’t believe what we tell them’
  • ‘Why was the system down for so many hours?’

Very often such complaints have been justified. Indeed I once fired an IT Director for not noticing that the automatic daily backups for our mission-critical systems weren’t actually working. We accidentally deleted an important table and had to recreate our timesheet records from a three-month-old backup. It took a week and cost a lot of time and money.

It must be hard to run an IT department. You’re rarely thanked. The best you can hope for, perhaps, is not to be noticed, though everyone needs to know where you are in an emergency. As a consultant I often hear from clients about how awful their IT departments are. Amongst their complaints are:

  • IT specialists speak a nerdy language that ordinary users don’t understand, so the remedies they suggest to everyday problems are incomprehensible
  • They’re so clever and knowledgeable that they treat their users with disdain – as if they’re idiots
  • They say ‘No’ to almost everything – No to Webex, No to Skype, No to so many of the tools that modern business relies on
  • They often fail to solve performance issues and end up putting the whole business at risk.

So, I was surprised and pleased when I didn’t receive a single complaint from any of our managers (and nearly all of them took the trouble to answer them). I’d instigated the research because I’d heard nothing at all about IT for months and wondered what they were doing and whether they should be doing more of it, or different things entirely. But it seems they’ve got it right – striking the right balance between what should be managed centrally and what should be managed locally, providing a good service, keeping our systems alive and well and quick, obstructing nothing and taking few risks. Quiet, it seems, is good.

But I won’t give you the name of our IT Manager, in case you try to take him away from me.

Outsourcing is a fashionable topic – at least if you’re talking about the Cloud. Of all the good and bad arguments for outsourcing systems, the one I’ve most often heard is that ‘If we outsource, then we won’t have to deal so much with our own IT department.’

Why is it that IT Departments are so often feared and loathed? I wish I knew. Is it because they are aliens of a kind – super-intelligent beings who speak another language? Or is it that they never meet the end-customers of a business? Or is it that they are never thanked, or never get the management support and budget that they need? Or is it just very, very difficult to get it right? There must surely be an opportunity for some lucrative consulting in this field if only one knew the answers. But we can’t do without them!

 

Clouds – Nimbus, 9, or Cuckoo?

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I am distrustful of bandwagons, and rarely board them as they rattle noisily by. It’s not that I’m against enthusiasm, or novelty, it’s just that bandwagons are often driven with irrational exuberance, and very often they crash. I prefer the slower vehicles that come along behind. They set out in the same direction, but with more care and circumspection, and they reach their destination more reliably.

bandwagon

I remember the bandwagon of the Dotcom boom – and the bust that followed it. Whilst there’s no doubt that the internet changed our lives, I’d rather call it accelerated evolution than revolution. Its victims were more often its most ardent supporters, hell bent on delightful ideas that lacked even a modicum of commercial good sense or realism, than the ancien regime.

The advent of the internet was evolution. It simply extended what we already had, and what we already did as business IT consultants. It didn’t, despite the fears of some, invalidate what we already knew. Business systems nestle as comfortably in the internet as they previously did in their more confined circumstances. The basic problems of system integration, of manufacturing, retail, services, accounting, distribution, CRM, and the rest, are of the same type as before, as complex as ever and we, who understand them, are as valuable as ever.

During the feverish years of the dotcom boom one of my colleagues told me that if we weren’t immediately reborn as ‘Dot LLP’  (instead of LLP Group) we’d be annihilated within six months. I laughed. We didn’t, and we’re still going strong. We learned some of the new dotcom tricks, and we go on learning.

thecloud

The Cloud, I fear, is currently another bandwagon. We won’t be boarding it with too much haste, even if its direction is the right one. We’ll be waiting for the slower train that won’t go off the rails.

The Cloud is an excellent idea. It comes in many forms. As those who tout it say, it allows businesses, even software authors such as we are (systems@work) to concentrate on what we do best. The business of managing IT infrastructure, handling communications, backups, performance, security, and so on, isn’t the business that most of us are in. It’s not our field of battle, so better to leave it to the experts. No need to employ specialists if others can do the job at a competitive price and relieve us of unproductive anxiety. We must concentrate on our core business activities.

All of that is true, and if we could all dump our systems onto rented hardware at reasonable cost, why not? Sometimes it’s possible and the right thing to do.

But that’s not exactly what the Cloud is meant to be. Certainly not all it’s meant to be. It’s not just a matter of hosting the particular collection of business software that we’ve amassed and integrated, it’s also about using a standard piece of software in a ‘multi-tenanted’ environment – one size, one copy suits all. And if we use this piece of software for accounting, this piece of software for distribution, and that piece of software for manufacturing, it may be about using multiple standard pieces of software in a number of different Clouds. It’s about business software becoming a commodity that can be accesses as easily as water through a tap.

Many business worry about the security of their data. But these issues of security are solvable, even if many companies are reluctant to let the ‘professionals’ look after their data. The fact is that data are vulnerable wherever they’re located, whether in-house or hosted, and the issues of security can be solved or not as easily in one environment as the other.

It is the issue of ‘standard software’ and ‘integration’ that don’t yet fit perfectly well within the Cloud. Sometimes, if the purpose of a piece of software is such that it can stand alone and if it’s used without alteration (even if configured for a particular company’s purposes) the Cloud can be a good place to put it, but if standard software has been modified, or extended, or is integrated in complex ways with other pieces of software, and other databases, then making this work with a Cloud-based solution will be difficult, and with a ‘pure’ multi-tenant Cloud based solution (one copy of the software serving everyone) it will be well-nigh impossible. Ensuring the consistency and coherence of systems and databases that are in multiple environments that you do not fully control will be difficult.

As time goes by, new techniques for integration may make this task easier, but we we’re not yet at that destination.

So, I am cautious about Cloud-based offerings in the world of business IT. They may work for some, but for many they aren’t yet the right solution. What seems initially like a good idea founders when a business needs something special from a standard software offering, or some special way of interfacing systems, and many businesses find themselves trapped by the choice they’ve made if it’s located in the Cloud. They’ve exchanged one limitation – the anxiety of running their own infrastructure – for another – the anxiety that comes from being limited by someone else’s standard software and infrastructure.

Whilst the provision and management of infrastructure isn’t usually the basis of a company’s competitive edge, the business software on it, often is.

As a software author (systems@work) we’re cautious. We offer configured systems in a hosted environment, and this suits customers who don’t need any software modifications and who don’t need interfaces between Cloud-based and non-Cloud systems, or who need only simple ones. And we offer on-premise installation and full-blown integrations when they’re needed.

But for now, the Cloud isn’t always the answer and we won’t be betting the business on it.

 

The Perils of Outsourcing

We live in an outsourcing and outsourced world. We’re sometimes victim, sometimes perpetrator. Wherever we are or whatever we do, whether in a hotel, or a hospital, even if we’re languishing at home in need of social care, we’re likely to be served by a cluster of different companies, very often without knowing it.

It’s a compelling idea if you’re running a business. Outsource ‘non-core functions’ to companies who are experts in these areas to drive down cost by putting your contract out to tender. Never mind that these companies pay only the minimum wage or hold their employees to zero-hour contracts. Not your concern. Who employs office cleaners directly nowadays? Almost no one. Hospitals outsource their catering, local governments outsource ‘care giving’.

It works. But at a cost. The sense of common endeavour in an organisation, of everyone pulling together to achieve a common purpose, will be lost if the traditional relationship of employer and employed (ideally a mutually respectful one) is replaced by the usual dog-eat-dog relationship of customer and supplier, where loyalty is usually absent. You will treat your cleaners differently if thy don’t directly ‘belong’ to you.

buck

And because of this it sometimes doesn’t work.

I stayed at a moderately-inexpensive hotel in Sydney for six nights last week. Comfortable enough, architecturally undistinguished, small room, no view, but fit for my purposes, except that the internet, with which I cannot live or breathe, was abominable. Dropped connections, slow to the point of stasis, no signal sometimes, ‘restart the router’ at other times, all the usual problems. But when I called down to reception, they tell me, ‘I’ll put you in touch with our service provider.’

‘Our service provider’ is a friendly lady, but she’s a few hundred miles away.

‘What hotel are you in?’ she asks, and then takes me through all the things I already know how to do.

‘I’ll call you back,’ she says.

She never does.

The nice girl at Reception shrugs. There’s nothing she can do. It’s been out of her hands, she says, ever since they outsourced the service.

The end result is not that no one cares, but that control is lost. The buck has been passed to someone for whom I am the distant irritant in Room 122 in a far away place of which she’s never heard.

So, think before outsourcing, even if it’s not a ‘core function’. Don’t lose control, don’t pass the buck. Be in a position both to care and to act. Otherwise your reputation may suffer.