Imagine a couple – let's call them Tom and Barbara – who, after 20 years as husband and wife, find themselves in a slump. Things just aren't working out; they don't have much in common any more. There's no spark. Barbara has told Tom she's not happy and isn't sure what to do next, and Tom is worried.
Tom meets his friend Dave in a local cafe, and tells him everything. Dave leans back in his chair with his hands behind his head, lets out a long sigh, and says "Tom: you need to get things back on track. Buy her some flowers. It'll show you love her, and you can take it from there." Dave seems so confident, Tom takes him at his word – and buys some flowers on his way home. Barbara gives him a little smile when she sees them. "What have I done to deserve this, then?" she says. "Oh, nothing," Tom replies.
The next day Tom texts Dave to say that the flowers were a hit – but he knows it's just the start of a long road and that him and Barbara need to get to talking properly. Dave texts back almost immediately: "Don't worry about that mate. Actually I've just heard about a new hotel in London – it's fantastic for romantic weekends apparently – take her there." So Tom surprises his wife with a hotel trip away for the weekend; she's clearly chuffed. Still, though, she's clear that they still need to sit down and really talk through their issues – she's still confused and uncertain.
Tom is happy that at least things aren't getting any worse, and when he meets Dave in the pub the day after they return from their hotel getaway he says as much – but he's still worried about whether Barbara understands his attempts to make things better. Dave wastes no time in intervening again: "You know what? I'm thinking that maybe you're not thinking big enough. I just heard about this fantastic exclusive holiday island..."
The truth is, of course, that it's always easier to busy yourself with buying stuff than to try and address deep-down problems. It's no different in corporate environments than in our personal lives.
Last week I was involved in a brief Twitter exchange between experienced independent consultant Peter Evans-Greenwood (@pevansgreenwood) and Capgemini's Global Head of Master Data Management Steve Jones (@mosesjones). The thrust of the to-and-fro was how the dis-connect between the pace of technology change and the pace of technology-enabled business change just seems to be getting bigger and bigger. The IT industry is throwing off innovations and pseudo-innovations at an ever-increasing pace – but the speed with which businesses are able to take shiny new IT ideas, products and services and turn them into useful outcomes certainly isn't matching it.
I suspect that the very human trait that drives problem avoidance may be about to manifest itself further, because of the rapid rise in use of software-as-a-service (SaaS) application offerings. On one hand, the SaaS model has the potential to reduce the gap between technology investment and delivery of business value, by virtue of their commercial model: most SaaS based offerings come with free trial periods, and the idea is to attract as many people as possible to sign up to a paid service with no manual intervention. This means it's in SaaS providers' interests to work hard to design services that are intuitive, attractive and useful 'out of the gate'. On the other hand, the fact that it's so easy for part of an organisation to get started with a SaaS offering without working through any corporate checks and balances means that adoption of new technologies – new places for business information to get stored and processed – can quite easily tend towards chaotic.
Some might argue, I suppose, the following: if groups within a company are getting value out of using SaaS offerings X, Y and Z right now, what does it matter if the places where we store and process information are proliferating? As long as we're making good business decisions, surely anything else is just nerdy IT window-dressing?
To counter that argument, all I think we need to do is point back to the rapidly-growing integration challenges that gave rise to the Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) investment wave in the mid-to-late 1990s. With SaaS, sure you can run fast: but no matter how fast you run, sooner or later your legacy is going to catch up with you and at that point, it's likely to get messy.
So what's the answer? In my experience, it's to ensure that IT governance steps out of its shady corner (where it's primarily involved in dealing with security, risk and compliance issues) and knits into the relevant buying points and processes. All too often, governance is seen as either a hazy buzzword or a byword for "IT as the department of 'no'": but when it's appropriately handled, a governance framework – in other words, a set of organisational structures, policies and procedures to influence the way that management decisions are made – can be a powerful thing. When it comes to extending the role of governance out beyond IT core issues to the places where IT investment is being driven from and carried out, the key thing is to remember this simple idea: "it's much better to influence investment before it happens, than to try to undo it after it's happened". Openness, collaboration and education – not policy and standards – need to be the tools in your kitbag.
New, shiny things can be really exciting and energising to get involved in – but we all need to remember that focusing on "shiny, shiny" can be a dangerous way to proceed in the long term.
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CIO columnist Neil Ward-Dutton is carrying out some research into cloud based email and is inviting CIOs to take part in a survey and in return he will share the findings with you. To get involved go to: