Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Part 8 - Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

(This is part 8 in a series of 16 posts about IT leadership in higher education titled Everything I Need to Know about IT Management I Learned from Star Trek. See Part 0 - Introduction for the full list.)

Star Trek's Vulcan world believed in the need to celebrate and support the the vast array of cultures and variables in existence throughout the universe. They summarized this belief in the phrase "infinite diversity in infinite combinations." To an IT department infinite diversity in infinite combinations means “one size fits none.” Specifically, I’m thinking of vendor written ERP systems. They are a particular challenge. 

In the old days we used to handcraft systems. They were built from the ground up and custom tailored to fit every process and client nuance in the organization. We programmed every unique activity and process into the system. So, of course our legacy systems met our needs perfectly.

Today we can’t afford that approach. I’ve heard estimates that to build a new student information system from scratch would cost about $45,000,000. It would be perfectly customized to meet the demands of every nook and cranny in the organization's existing processes. But it would bankrupt the organization. 

Instead of building our own unique systems, we buy industry specific solutions like ERPs. The problem with vendor written ERPs is that vendors build them to meet generic organizational needs. They end up not meeting anyone’s needs completely. They try to be one size fits all, but the reality is that one size fits none. 

This situation creates a new problem. You may have saved money by building instead of buying. But now you have a decision. Do you massively customize the product, or implement it off-the-shelf and change your existing processes? The answer typically lies somewhere in between and every organization's solution will be different. 

Whatever degree of customization your organization decides to choose, the role of IT changes. New leadership in IT means we must emphasize integration, not building from scratch. The days of handcrafting systems are over, but the complexity of “one size fits none” requires new skills. As IT leaders, integration skills are needed to manage infinite diversity in infinite in infinite combinations. That’s a tall order, but no one said the job was easy.


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