Is your IT department an island or an oasis?

* No.7 and final article in a series I wrote in Dec 2010

My last post got some great comments on LinkedIn, and more agreement than I’m used to! Antony Clay, Chief Strategy Officer at 21apps introduced me to his wonderful concept of “the celery effect” in his comment:

As I presented at a recent SharePoint user group, we need to “Stop the Celery Effect” of our projects where the investment and expenditure is greater than the value delivered and start to deliver true, tangible organisational value.

Isn’t this a fantastic metaphor for all those strategic IT projects that start with a big fanfare but in the stampede to show progress, hit milestones, etc. quietly forget what set of benefits/outcomes they set out to achieve. Eventually they blunder into a go-live state (mistakenly seen as the finish line) wild-eyed and frazzled. The project manager stand there like a crazed artist locked away toiling on his masterpeice, finally able to look up for this big moment when the curtain drops for the big reveal….

“Oh. Is that what we asked for? It isn’t quite what I expected. Still if it means we can get a new product out in 6 weeks it’ll be fanta… what do you mean 6 months? – that’s slower than the old way, you promised us 6 weeks…”

I really like “the celery effect” – you can read more on Antony’s blog.

To wrap up this series of posts about what we can all do to close the gap between an organisation and its IT dept, I want to paint a picture of two different IT departments.

Scenario 1

The first IT department isn’t on another planet to its business as I described here, but it does operate as an independent island state, distinct and separate from its parent organisation.

It has its own culture, power structure, and worships its own gods. For a community that values architecture and design so highly it can be surprisingly ramshackle behind the thick, high stone ramparts that have been built all around the shoreline.

Few people ever leave the island. Islanders are an insular bunch and don’t feel the need to socially interact with people from the mainland. They make do with communicating through terse emails and weighty documents. There are times when face to face contact is required but the islanders discourage this by feigning disinterest and treating everyone with suspicion.

People from the mainland used to value the quality of the craftwork produced by the islanders, and so tolerated their quirky nature and tendency to over-promise. In more recent times the mainlanders have found other tools that do a consistently “ok” job in less time. Resentment has grown on both sides and the isolation of the islanders is increasing.

Scenario 2

The second IT department also has its own culture, power structure, and worships its own gods. But rather than be an independent island it has adopted the form of a lake. Instead of high walls it has an open shoreline and mainlanders walk around the edge, dip their toes in, or fully immerse themselves, as they feel comfortable.

As a lake, the IT dept. is very clearly different and distinct from the mainland, but it sits within the mainland and borders with it on all sides. If the landscape changes shape then the lake is affected too.

Most mainlanders stay on or near the shore, and very few get to really understand the full ecosystem and explore the murky depths of the lake, but the shoreline and the shallows thrive with life. The waters can sometimes get choppy and accidents do happen, but generally it is safe to swim. The mainlanders value the lake and know they need to take care of it for their own benefit.

As you look forward to 2011, what sort of IT dept do you want to have in your organisation? What is your ideal picture? What are you doing to move closer to it?

Cheers, Mark

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