2 Oct 2012

CIT’s Problem 1: IT’s Missed Start and Puberty Crisis

In order to understand the position of IT today, it is important to know how IT evolved over the last decades.
The Ivory IT Tower
IT was introduced within the companies during the seventies and eighties. Since then it grew tremendously. The IT department was an ivory tower. At that time, the IT departments did not, or insufficiently, involve the business community when they were building software systems. While in theory their software systems may have worked, in the field, many practical issues were encountered. As a result business people were not satisfied with the brand new system delivered by the IT department. Business people discovered the system only during the implementation. At glance, IT started well, but in the end it missed its start.
The Fast Growth of IT
The IT discipline is young. IT evolved a lot in only a few decades and it still continues to do so.
More and more systems are built. Gradually, the systems being built were larger, more sophisticated and more complex. The first systems were designed with a specific function in mind, eg the payroll system or the invoice system. They supported only a delimited part of the organisations. They were not designed to be connected, let alone to share data. The challenge was to interconnect these systems. These software systems often (1) supported the existing paper administration or (2) automated these systems. Some new systems went further and (3) brought innovative concepts offering new products and services, allowing new ways of doing business and making new forms of organisation and collaboration possible.
Different periods focused on different types of systems like MIS, ERP, two-tier architecture and later the three-tier and multi-tier architecture, data warehousing, EAI, business intelligence, web applications, SOA, virtualisation and cloud computing. IT faced regularly new challenges. To be able to cope with these challenges IT had to evolve. New insights were acquired. With them, new techniques, methodologies, software development approaches and philosophies where conceived. New technologies were invented. And IT learned to incorporate them into practical solutions.
More People
As an economical and professional activity, IT is very interesting. It is a very dynamic world offering a wide range of jobs. IT is booming. Before the year 2000, IT faced the dotcom bubble, the Y2K-problem and the introduction of the Euro. At that time, there was a huge shortage of work forces on the labour market. Plenty of people were attracted from various backgrounds. They were quickly trained to become IT workers. IT employed people with an education in computer science, but it also attracted a lot of people without any education of this domain at all.
Involving quickly trained people and people with only a superficial IT-background in IT allowed the sector to continue growing. But it had lesser favourable consequences as well. The very young discipline spread but hadn't the time neither to establish a strong foundation, nor to be anchored correctly in the society. Other factors weakened the position of IT as well.
Meanwhile, in a period of a few decades, IT workers developed habits and working methods. A whole set of beliefs, norms, expectations, thinking patterns, practices and knowledge grew and was propagated. Based on these, competencies were developed. The IT people gained experience. These competencies, practices and experiences are based on learning from colleagues, who learned it from other colleagues, who learned it from other colleagues, who … This approach is ideal to ingrain and perpetuate bad practices based on superficial insight. It is unlikely to lead to real professionalism.
IT people follow courses. Then they returned to the company with new knowledge and insights. But bad practices issued from the earlier method are well anchored. The environment is not receptive, let alone cooperative, to the introduction of newly learned matter. It is difficult to put the learned matter into practice. The “theory” doesn’t match with the local practices. The current practices do not take full advantage of the available insights (called theories).
We notice symptoms of this. Specific terms are often incorrectly used. Or, job titles in IT do not mean too much. It is required to look at the content of the job description to know what the job is about. Even this description often contains strange combinations of demanded competencies. Or, today, someone can be analyst and tomorrow he/she can be project manager. This would be unthinkable in, let’s say, medicine. These are all symptoms of the lack of foundation in corporate IT, and thus of professionalization.
The discipline of IT is still in its puberty. IT is still forming its personality. Its personality must still mature and strengthen. It is still building its identity. It hasn't found its rightful place. IT behaves like a teenager among adults. IT faces plenty of growth problems and seeks how to position itself towards the new challenges and what strategies it can put in place to solve them. IT is also easily influenced. It is easy for neophytes to be involved and to exercise a detrimental influence on this still fragile discipline. Appealing ideas are easily hyped distracting IT from its fundamental principles, role and responsibilities. Today, IT is not a settled well-defined strong professional discipline. IT doesn’t have the maturity to impose itself as a discipline. This is a huge weakness of corporate IT today.

Axel Vanhooren.

Freelance IT Consultant

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