Thursday, August 16, 2018

IT Isn't Binary

John Lennon once said, “Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.” In other words, what we perceive as reality is only part of the whole story. Sometimes in IT we focus on what we think is a problem with boundaries, when most problems are borderless if we let our creative side loose. For example, IT folks are often faced with decisions that appear to be opposites. Our analytical nature leads us to believe we must make a binary choice - to choose one and suffer the consequences of not satisfying the other.

But life isn’t that simple. I really think John was urging us to be creative and look for imaginative alternatives. That’s good advice for IT staff who are regularly expected to solve concurrent demands that are pulling in completely opposite directions. Here’s some examples of the dilemmas we regularly face:
  • IT is expected to be increasingly agile while delivering services anywhere, anytime, anyplace. But that gets expensive and we are increasingly operating in a cost conscious environment. Delivering more for less money is creatively possible, but not easy.
  • IT must accept any device in an open and collegial environment, while simultaneously ensuring meticulous security infrastructures that guard the university’s most valuable intellectual assets. We’re expected to be open and welcoming while being locked-down and infinitely secure. That’s a non-trivial challenge.
  • Procuring a single version of the truth for all data analytics is a de facto standard expectation of IT, even when different clients derive the same analysis from different data sources. I’ve seen each faculty with their own GPA algorithm and their own GPA data sources – how do you get consensus when the data and the logic are completely different? World peace might be easier. 
  • IT is expected to be an innovator and enabler. We are expected to digitize the university process model. Yet where does the IT department report to? Is its leadership ranked at the level that will enable IT to effectively digitalize an institution? A universal digitization strategy is unlikely to have the needed impact if IT is at the wrong reporting level. Expectations need to be backed with organizational credibility.
  • Inclusion and collaboration are the mantras of our legislative culture. Our governments demand we lower IT costs by working together through shared service initiatives. Yet even within our own institutional boundaries, CIOs do not directly manage all the IT staff. Independent local IT departments are a way of life in higher education. Corralling these folks into a shared service within the university cannot be mandated, yet our governments expect, and in some cases demand, multiple institutions work seamlessly together through shared services. Easy to ask, hard to do.
  • Our core IT mandate has always been schizophrenic. Keep the lights on and ensure maximum up time of production services, while at the same time, innovating, assimilating new technologies, and implementing new projects. These demands are diametrically opposed requiring different IT cultures, processes, and attitudes. A delicate balancing act for IT.
  • Is privacy just a legal issue anymore? Academic leadership is demanding ethical considerations that go beyond the letter of the law to protect personal information – they are waving the moral flag in the privacy battle. But administrative leadership wants us to be more efficient and less expensive. So they are demanding we push the constraints of the legislation in the other directions such as jostling against privacy rules to enable faster adoption of cloud services. That puts IT between a rock and a hard place.
  • We know a major IT security breach is going to happen, we just don’t know when. Moreover, the consequences of an attack are becoming increasingly dangerous. What happens when a future attack permanently deletes all records of degrees being granted from your institution and you could no longer prove someone earned a degree from your university? We know we need to provide more security, and the tighter your security is, the less flexible your service can be. Preventive tightening of security is met with rousing cries of resistance from across campus because there is no hard evidence that more security is necessary until a major incident happens. Should IT be good cop or bad cop?

Balancing divergent viewpoints is essential in any activity. Finding compromise and middle ground is how organizations survive. But any organization with multiple constituents will create conflicting expectations and a service group like IT can easily be caught in the middle. This isn’t a technology problem. This is all about the whole organization making choices, not just the IT department. These cannot be consensus-driven choices because many of the directions listed above are mutually exclusive. If IT chooses one path, cheerleaders on the other path will be hurt.
But should we always resolve these conflicts? I think the answer is no. We need to accept that these diametrically opposed challenges are a reality of life in IT. The mistake is thinking we must make a choice. We live in an IT world where what appear to be opposites can actually be complementary and even fruitful paradoxes. For example, as a CIO I’ve been managing production operations alongside new projects for my entire career. New projects can be improved by applying lessons learned from moving previous projects into production. Production services continuously improve as new projects force technology innovations into our core infrastructure. Despite the fact that they compete for resources, if managed in a mindful and balanced fashion they can both learn from each other. Projects become more disciplined; operations become more creative.
If reality leaves a lot to the imagination, then successful IT is a blend of apparently polar opposites that can only be resolved with inspiration born from our imaginations. With this advice at least I know I’ll never be bored. Thanks John.

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