Wednesday, March 14, 2012

IT Governance is Dead. Long live IT Stewardship.

There was a windstorm on Vancouver Island last night - one that blows off the Pacific and seems to make the whole island shudder. There was a weird noise that seemed to be coming from inside the house. As I lay in bed, the last thing I wanted to do was wander around the house looking for the problem. So I kept telling myself it was just my imagination and everything was ok. Then BLAM! Something fell inside the house. There was no making excuse anymore. I had to leap out of bed and deal with it.

IT governance has become one of those issues. For the past ten years the holy grail of IT has been governance. But the wind has been shaking the house of governance for sometime now. Over the years I have seen a number of organizations create governance structures and governance models and governance committees. Typically these models are well planned and follow all the appropriate literature. Some processes achieve moderate success while others continue to struggle.

Typically the CIO creates the governance model, chairs the meetings, sets the agenda, and drives the action. They are attempting to govern IT in the enterprise. But they are attempting to govern someone else’s assets. What gets forgotten in these models is the reason for creating IT departments in the first place. IT departments exist to support the strategic and operational goals of the business. IT was created to realize the dreams and aspirations of their stakeholders. The assets are not theirs to govern. The mistaken notion that IT can govern someone else's property is the root of the problem.

I suggest we shift our thinking from governance to stewardship. Stewardship is the responsibility to take care of something belonging to someone else. By moving from a model where IT attempts to govern someone else’s assets to a model where IT recognizes the true ownership of the assets changes everything.

In a stewardship model, the needs and concerns of IT clients actively influence the decision-making process of the IT department. The decision-making process becomes transparent to stakeholders. The clarity creates trust among the IT department’s clients.

The intention of a stewardship process is to engage clients in enterprise IT decision-making. The organization uses an open and transparent process where clients actively and regularly participate in guiding the future of technology at the organization. The role of the IT department is to facilitate the process of decision-making, not to govern the decision-making.

The purpose of a vibrant stewardship model is to engage IT stakeholders in the prioritization of work and the selection of the criteria that determines those priorities. Successful stewardship allows customers to influence and guide IT planning, policy, and priorities for the entire organization. All appropriate stakeholders discuss information systems investments in a collaborative fashion.

Stewardship is the open, honest, and responsible management of something entrusted to your care. Governance is about making decisions that set expectations, grant power, or measure performance. These are two different worlds representing significantly different mindsets. Governance can lead to IT forgetting its role in the organization and attempting to assume more responsibility than is appropriate. Stewardship is about helping the organization realize its information technology dreams and aspirations.

In case you were worried about my house, everything was okay. The wind blew open a poorly fastened door and a painting that was loaned to us by my mother-in-law was blown to the floor. I fixed the door so it will never shake loose again. Hopefully I have improved my stewardship of my mother-in-law’s painting.



  1. Bingo! The Governance Boards for IT that I have set up were all built on this principle. The CIO was primus inter pares or "first among equals", but not in charge and not necessarily the chair. The rest of the organisation had their leadership on that Board; it determined priorities, approved policies, etc. IT staff who presented at it were taught how to approach a Board (same as a Board of Directors, with the briefing packet and only when a true decision is needed).

    Stewardship, for instance, opens the door to XaaS (anything as a service) solutions elsewhere in the organisation being adopted but not prohibited in advance. BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) would be the norm, not the rare exception. IM (information management) would take a much bigger role: IT as It (big on Information, less on technology) instead of iT (the last 50 years). All of those, in turn, help the IT organisation remember its place, which is far less a controller than has been the norm.

    Well done!

    1. Thanks Bruce.

      The big "T" Technology is a commodity and as such shouldn't be a core competency. Conversely, the "I" is truly unique to each organization. "I" is the competitive differentiator. We don't have to look past Google for proof.

  2. One of my most successful efforts as a CIO was to categorize all Information Systems project requests into three buckets: Strategic (positioning for the future), Operations Improvement (automating or reducing operations costs), and Maintenance (capital upgrades). Then, for each request, the vice president or better who had signature authority, i.e. ability to sign off on paying for the group of projects or benefiting from it, was identified. That person was then presented with a list of all his subordinates' requests and asked to provide a prioritized list of the projects. Then, Information Systems would work on the highest priority project for which financial/technical resources were available, which sometimes meant that it was his number 2 or 3 project that was worked on, but he understood what the issues and priorities were.

    Additionally, this process put the business's priorities at the front of the queue, engaged non-IS management in prioritization, and left no constituency unserved.

    The IS department's job became one of analysis and budgeting, project planning and implementation, and customer satisfaction. On the technical side, it was to track the IT hardware/software resources needed for active and pending projects and ensure that they were optimized.

    As the CIO is responsible for the long-term value of IT, I could propose strategic projects and spend some discretionary funds on small strategic projects to position the IT environment (e.g. install an open source DNS system, upgrade a server to a different OS, trial a desktop management system, or pilot an application). This was positioned as an equivalent level activity to other VPs or above.

    1. Sounds perfectly logical! You let the business priorities set the agenda and ask IT to focus on client satisfaction. You addressed the three key dimensions: fit (alignment with the organization strategic priorities), utility (costs/benefits), and balance (no constituency unserved).

  3. Alignment, utility, balance as foundations to stewardship. After all, IT services all in an organization, stewardship over governance, leadership over management. Good article Mark.