Recipe for improving operational IT – take two-thirds best practice, one-third tools

At the end of last year we ran a number of polls and surveys in conjunction with The Register, covering aspects of IT from architecture to operations. The results make interesting reading but for us the whole exercise was a lesson in keeping things real. It can be very easy in this bizzare business to think one of two things – first, that everything is different from this time last year (SOA is dead, sure, you just keep telling yourself that), and second, that nothing’s really changed in the last four decades.

While there may be a grain of truth in both, the answers lie somewhere in the middle – which is why it is quite a privilege to be able to ask real people, in real jobs at the front line of IT, what is really going on. We know from larger exercises how most activity is incremental to what is already there – however the misplaced perspective from some quarters is that ‘keeping the lights on’ is in some way a bad idea, as if we should chuck out the lights and replace them with some ‘lighting management system’. I happen to think that lights work pretty well as it happens, and while we may want to switch the bulbs, I wouldn’t advise rooting around in the fuse boxes without good reason.

Behind the name ‘Freeform Dynamics’ is the store we set by the freeform text comments we receive in studies. In one of the afrementioned polls (which garnered 180 respondents), we asked the question, “What is the single biggest thing that you would change in your organisation to improve IT operational performance?” Confirming the lights-on theme mentioned above, technical responses tended to be around adapting or improving existing facilities to the changing needs of the business, for example:

  • “Better integration of diverse applications on different Operating Systems, Vista/XP/2000.”
  • “Heritage processes/tools that no longer model the way the organisation is structured.”
  • “Introduction of to-disk offsite backups would free up 3 man days a week from tape backup duty.”
  • “Improve the testing platform – it often gets neglected at the expense of production.”

But here’s the punchline – those who proffered technical improvements equated to only 22% of respondents. A further 40% or so gave us non-technical feedback which – to be frank – is exactly the reason we find ourselves so often trying to steer conversations towards policy, training, finance and the like. Trouble is with that stuff, it’s all too easy to fall into the motherhood trap – but ignoring it means missing out on the topics that will see IT succeed or fail.

It’s interesting to see how that 40% breaks down. 8% of them wanted more money – and don’t we all – but equally thought it was important to link IT cash to business needs. This links to another theme coming out of the comments – of actually communicating between IT and business. While blindingly obvious to many pundits, the fact that it is seen as an area for improvement is indicative that many organisations are still finding IT-business relations a struggle.

The feedback from the remaining 25% focused on the human side of IT – management and staff, and getting the right strategies in place. One thing is clear from the comments – that IT departments are still occupied by human beings, in all their varying levels of glory. Choice feedback included:

  • “Replace all the idiots that make strategic decisions with either trained technologists or intoxicated lemurs (it’s still an improvement).”
  • “Fire dead-wood, hire skilled employees. Sadly skilled employees are hard to find, and budgets are tight to prohibit growing the team to compensate.”
  • “Replace the senior management over IT with qualified people who understand IT operations and budget.”
  • “Reduce number of managers hence reduce political infighting.”
  • “Management must trust IT people more.”

What the comments tell us is that IT operations cannot be improved through technology alone. Even as the cry of, “Oh no, is that correct, Sherlock,” fades into the distance (or words to that effect) I feel obliged to remind anyone who might still be listening that, unfortunately, that is not how things are presented. Even while straw polls and surveys alike might suggest that good practice is far more important than technology, the former is just too dull to fill the column inches. Far more sexy are the latest gadgets, packages and other fads, but even as these are debated, scant attention is being paid to how exactly practice can be improved.

Let the final word come from one of our freeform commenters: “Positive effects on IT only come from good decisions, not tech.” Motherhood maybe, but until we get the balance right between practice and tools, it is unlikely to be dealt with any time soon.

Recipe for improving operational IT – take two-thirds best practice, one-third tools

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