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!

 

I don’t believe in the Cloud

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There, I’ve said it. I know it’s a heretical view, but I’m no follower of fashion, whether sartorial, gastronomic, linguistic or professional.

the cloud

But it’s not a simple issue, and I will qualify my views very carefully.

I’m talking of course, of the IT Cloud, that somewhere-nowhere place where software and data are held for private or corporate use. I don’t doubt that it’s a safe, secure and cost-effective place, (and if it’s not yet those things, it could be). And I don’t doubt that when it comes to certain kinds of ‘utility’ applications – word processors, spreadsheets, simple databases, and so on – it makes it easier for people to share data and ideas. There are plenty of benefits when it comes to certain, limited, kinds of Cloud. My objections are confined to the Cloud as it’s promoted for business applications, a field I’ve worked in for more than 35 years.

Business applications are at the core of all medium-sized and large organisations all over the world. Without them things don’t get made, sales don’t happen, deliveries fail, customers become unhappy, profits don’t get calculated, and vital things don’t get bought or just don’t arrive in time. I’m not sure if they save on paper, but they save on labour, doing those repetitive, communicative and administrative things more accurately, consistently and rapidly than humans can ever do them. They reach out across the internet to enable us to order pizza from our living rooms, or buy tickets for flights from one continent to another. They touch are lives hundreds of times a day.

They are immensely complex. The largest of them, such as SAP or Oracle, contain millions of lines of computer code, and trillions of possibilities, and they’re developed by thousands of programmers over millions of man-days. The largest (and most expensive) of them also do absolutely everything that a company needs its business systems to do- from procurement and purchasing, engineering simulation, to distribution route-planning, payroll and career-planning.

The best of them are configurable and don’t need source-code modification to make them work well for a particular customer. Take Infor’s SunSystems, for example, a beautifully designed accounting system that is easily adapted for all sorts of purposes, or systems@work’s time@work, a professional services and expense management package that works for a wide variety of professional services organisations, from consulting and engineering, to law or oil and gas exploration. Neither system comes with source code, so ‘one size fits all’ and each organisation’s quirks are managed through configuration of the software’s parameters. My company – LLP Group – has worked enthusiastically with both of these products for more than twenty years. We love them, but except when life is very simple, I don’t seem them perching entirely comfortably on the Cloud.

The reality is that there is no core business system in the world that does all the mission-critical things that a company needs only through configuration (those vital things that enable it to be competitive). And there’s no core business software system in the world that does everything. There’s usually a need for the integration of several business systems –  time@work with SunSystems and Microsoft CRM, for example – to cover 95% of a company’s needs. Some of these systems, particularly those that bring a particular competitive advantage, may even have been written specifically for one company.

Integration is difficult to do in the Cloud. I take the Cloud, in this context, to be a place where a single instance of a business software system is installed and used by multiple organisations of different kinds – one software version, but configured differently for each organisation. That’s ‘cloud cuckoo’ Cloud in my experience, certainly if we’re considering those essential systems at the heart of a competitive business.

The Cloud is best when it offers either a peripheral function that isn’t mission-critical and is more or less standard across a wide variety of sectors (expense management, for example) , or a function that is essential but can be configured sufficiently to suit most organisations (CRM systems such as Salesforce, for example). But it’s no good for those idiosyncratic areas that make one company stand out from another or when an ambitious fashion-following IT or Operations Director says, ‘I want everything in the Cloud.’

I’ve seen Cloud implementations fail at the first hurdle, especially when it comes to the almost always necessary integration of multiple systems. Integration code is rarely usable by more than one organisation, and as soon as you need something special up there in the Cloud alongside the ‘one size fits all’ copies of your core business software, you’ve descended from the purest Cloud to something that’s merely ‘hosting’, because no one else can use the particular combination of software and integration code that’s been installed and developed for you.

And, even if you’re in the purest Cloud, you’re still vulnerable to what can seem like the arbitrary upgrade of the core software, which is entirely out of your control. Sadly, business software contains bugs, and most companies want to test very carefully before accepting a new version. In the purest Cloud you don’t have that option.

So, no, I don’t believe in the  Cloud. I love the idea that you don’t need your own IT department, that to others can be delegated the responsibility of procuring IT infrastructure, and of ensuring safety, security and performance. That’s hosting or the ‘private Cloud’. But when it comes to the mission-critical functions and very specific integrations on which your organisation depends – forget the Cloud in its most idealistic form.

 

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.