Over the years I've spent quite a lot of time thinking about the idea of IT maturity models - which are great in principle, but, to be frank, a bit of a blunt instrument when it comes to gauging reality. Many IT organisations are quite comfortable where they are in terms of maturity for example - providing 'good enough' service levels without necessarily striving to be best-in-class. Meanwhile, the theory that a large proportion of IT depts remain unable to crawl out of the in the primeval swamp of IT maturity is no more than that - a theory.

Are there better ways to consider how IT departments are structured and how they operate? To be sure, different options exist. A couple of years ago I was working with the ideas used in personality testing, to see if I could come up with a similar model for IT. One hypothesis, which I believe to be true, is that most IT departments will remain much the way they are unless they are subject to some external change - replacement of the CIO for example, or merger with another department. Until such times, it is more important to understand what an IT department is, than what it might become.

The personality of an IT department is multi-dimensional. Based on research we gathered with readers of the Register web site (report), coupled with some telephone study work, we were able to derive a number of characteristics of IT organisations, namely

1. Organisation - whether the IT function considers itself to be a technical or service department (TECHNICAL vs SERVICE)

2. Process - the level of formalisation/repeatability of IT development and operations processes(INFORMAL vs FORMALISED)

3. Approach - whether projects and deployment generally take place individually, or mostly with an eye on a broader strategy (DISCRETE vs PROACTIVE)

4. Dialogue - how interactive are the communications between IT and the business (REPORTING vs ENGAGING)

None of the above is necessarily wrong. For example, an IT organisation may need to be Technical if the business is highly technology-driven; equally, some companies may benefit from a Discrete approach if lead times are the driving characteristic. Smaller organisations, or branches may have different needs to larger ones, and so on.

Such characteristics offer 16 potential combinations, but not all of these will be generally applicable. Combinations we believe will be more likely are as follows:

TIDR - The classic "traditional IT organisation" - IT exists for its own purpose and there is little or no relationship established with the business. Unlikely that IT has a particularly good reputation, and fire fighting will be common.

TIPE - This is "don't watch the mouth, watch the feet" as the IT organisation appears to be doing everything right in terms of business engagement, but it still doesn't appear to be moving forward in terms of maturity. This is due to to unwillingness to change from old practices and organisational models, though IT may be highly competent technically.

TFPR - The IT department feels it can do no wrong, and sure enough it is running a tight ship. However there is a feeling from the business side that something is lacking, as IT wants to engage on its own terms and sometimes gives the impression that it knows what is best for the business. IT wants a place on the board, but the business doesn't feel comfortable with this.

TFPE - While just about everything is in place, IT still thinks like a bunch of techies. This is fine for businesses that are themselves technical, but it may mean that the cost of technology is not fully understood. In other cases it is likely to show itself in a lack of responsiveness as IT works to solve the biggest technical issues rather than understanding what's the most pressing business need.

SFDR - While the IT function is doing what it can in terms of external processes, it lacks the necessary communications between development and operations. This may be because of political, or geographical reasons; in any case, the result is that ops falls back onto simple reporting, rather than being part of the dialogue itself.

SFPR - While everything is going generally right, IT may well be disappointing when it comes to engaging with the business, resorting to only sparse reporting on progress and performance. This may well be because the business itself does not understand why it should have to engage.

SIDE - There is a high level of engagement with the business, which is admirable. However, perhaps due to a traditionally fragmented approach to IT implementation, lots of legacy or otherwise (e.g. mergers), the environment itself is not in the best state, nor is how it is managed - so backups may be done inconsistently, or there may be security issues for example.

Such a model offers a useful starting point for any IT organisation, in terms of what is going to work - level of process, technology adoption and so on - as well as injecting a level of realism into proceedings. We all have aspirations, but we're not going to get any better unless we understand ourselves first - that's the principle anyway. Similarly, for vendors, the opportunity exists to create offerings based on how things actually work, rather than any over-aspirational view, or one-dimensional perspective on IT maturity. And meanwhile, models such as this may offer more realistic paths towards best practice, if and when we move into a more dynamic IT world.

More detail is available on this if it would be interesting and useful to anyone, including broader definitions of all 16 personalities. For now, I'd be very interested in feedback on the principle of the model itself - and whether or not it would work for you. So, if you have any thoughts on this, please do let me know.

By Jon Collins, Managing Director at Freeform Dynamics.