The main point of this blog is simple: let everyone see how we approach IT management at OPM. We’ll do this with a combination of theory and practical work we’re engaged in toward the goal of enabling a 21st Century workforce. We also want to use this blog to showcase some of the amazing talent in our organization.
This first series of posts is on the theoretical side; specifically, how do we see the IT landscape now as opposed to five or ten years ago? A lot of changes have taken place in that time, but too often – on both the private and public sector side – we manage the environment as if we were still in the 1990s, or earlier.
I thought I would kick this off by talking about the “rules” of IT. Note the use of quotes. If I were talking, my fingers would be making little quote marks in the air.
I’ll use an arbitrary number 6 to explain what I mean. I believe that if we challenge six rules we’ve come to know about IT, we can unleash a lot of innovation and productivity.
In this first post I’ll cover “rules” one and two.
“Rule” 1: Scarcity
This rule states that IT resources are scarce. On the labor side, IT talent and experience is hard to find. On the product side, only a few vendors make the equipment and software that will truly meet your needs, and they each charge a lot of money for their products and services. You had better use those large, expensive vendors otherwise your project will fail. Internally, corporate IT sets the rules for the use of technology; you have to conform to those rules because there’s no good alternative.
The Reality: Abundance
The reality is, IT resources are abundant. Talented IT labor is easy to find, but you have to know where to look and how to attract it (just like any talented labor). Useful IT products are everywhere: the average teenager has access to and actively uses more technology than the average office worker (just think of smartphones, laptops, digital music players, portable DVD players and digital cameras as well as powerful software tools available on the Web for free). And corporate IT no longer necessarily sets the rules: users have lots of choice and can revolt if the IT department doesn’t meet their needs.
Don’t manage as if IT resources are scarce. We have to broaden our definition of what technologies are right for the workplace to include open source, cloud computing, free tools and consumer-oriented products. We need to attract a different kind of IT professional, one who sees the world as resource-rich and understands the potential of consumer technologies. And we in corporate IT need to loosen our grip on the environment by partnering with our customers rather than dictating to them. After all, if they’re determined enough our customers have choice just like they do in the marketplace.
“Rule” 2: Standardization
This rule states that you cannot manage IT properly without standardizing everything. Standards create efficiencies of cost and scale; if you standardize on one model of computer, for example, your support cost per unit will go down because the support systems and processes you need to maintain only have to deal with one configuration. Conversely, if you do not standardize you waste money and hurt productivity. Not standardizing can create incompatibilities that impact people’s ability to do their work.
The Reality: Diversity
The reality is, the efficiencies of cost and scale to be gained through standardization have decreased dramatically over the years, especially in the realm of client hardware and software. Think of the telephone system: at the heart of the phone network is a series of sites scattered around the world that we call switches (also “hubs”, “points of presence”, “central offices” and a few other terms). These switches make sure that when you place a call, the right person receives it.
The technology at the heart of the phone system is standardized as much as possible; however, the system is designed to allow a wide variety of devices to be used for people to talk to each other. If you choose ten of your friends at random, chances are 8 or more of them have different mobile handsets. If a phone company tried to force all of its customers to use just one kind of phone, that company would go out of business.
So why do we operate our own IT environments any differently? The reason goes back to scarcity: if we assume IT resources are scarce, and one department can set the rules all users conform to, then we can impose a standard to make our lives easier. After all, if the phone company could make us all buy just one kind of phone (with regular, costly upgrades) without going out of business, then it would surely do so as its own support costs and technical complexity would be reduced.
But the phone company is in the business of helping people make calls, not in determining how those people make calls; as long as the phone conforms to a few basic standards, you can use it to make a call. Corporate IT needs to be run the same way: as much as possible, allow users of the computer systems to determine what devices will be best for them, and architect the environment to allow for that diversity.
Over the years as the IT product industry has matured, de facto standards have emerged. New products must adhere to those standards as much as possible, or nobody will buy them. As the number of innovative new devices that office workers might want to use (like mobile handsets, laptops, tablets and so on) increases, corporate IT can take advantage of the de facto standards in order to keep support costs low even as the number of different client platforms goes up.
The classic example is “Mac vs. PC”. A few years ago, if you wanted to have both Mac and Windows-based computers your support costs were nearly double what they would be if you just had PCs. This was because the operating systems (OS) were radically different in how they supported shared infrastructure like data networks, electronic file storage, printers and so on. Also, productivity software like word processing and spreadsheet applications had trouble opening files from a different OS.
That’s no longer the case. Now the incremental costs of adding support for the Mac in a Windows PC environment is close to zero, because Apple has made the Mac conform to standards that the PC uses as well (more accurately, Windows and the Mac OS have converged in their implementation of industry standards).
When you take support costs out of the equation, the personal productivity argument for client diversity becomes more valid. From a user perspective: if I’m a Mac whiz don’t waste resources forcing me to use a PC. Even more to the point: don’t tell me I can’t use a Mac when I know there’s no good reason why you won’t support it.
In my next post I’ll talk about the “rules” of Outsourcing and Cost.
Read Part Two
Read Part Three