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Multi-speed IT needs multi-speed CIOs

Multi-speed IT needs multi-speed CIOs

As the leader and advocate of the IT strategy, the CIO has to be the executive who can ensure rapid delivery without breaking the business

Most organisations are experiencing the tension between traditional ‘steady as she goes’ back-office IT developments, with its focus on utter reliability and risk-reduction, versus the relentless push for rapid innovative developments with release cycles measured in days and sometime hours. This can often cause fundamental fractures in traditional IT operations and frustrated clients.

Whilst initial commentary identified a binary split between a ‘fast’ and ’slow’ lane it is becoming clear that the true picture is more nuanced, with real-world developments sitting on a continuum between the two extremes and aligning to a multi-speed paradigm. Whilst startups have the advantages of green-field deployments with the absence of legacy considerations, virtually all existing organisations will have a requirement to deliver a range of IT initiatives that encompass a spectrum from back-end ‘legacy’ system of record upgrades, to ‘agile’ consumer facing front end applications with cycle times in weeks or even days.

Any volunteers for the ‘Slow Lane’?

Both types of delivery are essential to the business and it is important that they are recognised as such within the organisational culture. With the widespread promotion of the tangible befits of ‘agile’ and ‘innovative’ approaches, identifying appropriate terminology without implying a preconceived negative view is a challenge. The matter is further complicated when discussing the approach with non-IT executives. After all, every CEO worth the title wants their organisation to be ‘agile’ – in terms of being flexible and responsive to customer demand – but you can be pretty sure that they aren’t referring to the specific IT development methodology to be utilised.

Whilst start-ups have the advantages of green-field deployments with the absence of legacy considerations, virtually all existing organisations will have a requirement to deliver a range of IT initiatives that encompass a spectrum from back-end ‘legacy’ system of record upgrades, to ‘agile’ consumer facing front end applications with cycle times in weeks or even days.

Al Blake, Ovum

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Considering descriptors such as Slow vs. Fast – who wants to be slow in a modern IT organisation? Even worse is the Innovative vs. Traditional dichotomy – with everyone wanting to jump on the innovation bandwagon, ‘traditional’ sounds like a recipe for career suicide.

Others have used more clinical descriptors, simply identifying ‘type 1’ and ‘type 2’ development – but the trouble with such an approach is that it has to be qualified by explaining – ‘type 2 – oh that’s the innovation stream’, which defeats the purpose.

Recent roundtable discussions with CIOs have highlighted that even the word ‘legacy’ carries its own baggage. Obviously we can’t stop using such terms when they are widely understood shorthand in our industry, but we should be aware of the possible connotations when we do.

In searching for a model that can be easy assimilated by non-IT stakeholders we have borrowed a metaphor from the construction industry.

Read more: Unfazed by rapid change

Most homeowners understand the importance of robust foundations on which to build, after which they have opportunities to enhance their property without worrying whether it will fall down. We are therefore using ‘Foundation’ vs. ‘Enhancement’ streams as terminology, but CIOs are encouraged to utilise any terms that work in their context.

A wrong turn can be career limiting

Can you follow contrary philosophies simultaneously?

Without drilling into the technical details of individual development and delivery methodologies it is important for CIOs to understand that the underlying philosophies of the foundation and enhancement streams require different mental models. While it is possible for an individual to change from one to the other over a period of time it is nigh impossible for team members to exhibit both sets of attributes simultaneously.

The priorities, KPIs and success measures for delivering a foundational financial management information system upgrade are fundamentally different to those required to rapidly update and deploy a client facing mobile application product. It’s not just about following methodology A or methodology B – it’s a different way of thinking, with different priorities and risk tradeoffs.

Given the underlying philosophical differences it is virtually impossible for technical staff to operate under both paradigms simultaneously. The drivers and constraints are just too different. Successful delivery through a multi-speed approach requires separation of the teams, either on a structural or per-project basis.

However, while individual team members may be attracted to either foundational or enhancement implementations based on their experience, skill sets and preferred way of working, it is evident that modern ICT executives have to be comfortable with both paradigms.

They need to understand the trade-offs inherent in each approach, when each is appropriate and as importantly when it is not, and be able to communicate that throughout the organisation.

As the leader and advocate of the IT strategy the CIO has to be the executive who can ensure rapid delivery without breaking the business. Failing to address both aspects could easily be a career limiting move.

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Al Blake
Al Blake

Al Blake is Principal Analyst -Government Technology at Ovum.Prior to joining Ovum, he was the CIO for the Department of the Environment in the Commonwealth Government in Australia. He has an honours degree in marine biology from the University of St. Andrews and an MBA in Technology Management from Deakin University.

Send news tips and comments to divina_paredes@idg.co.nz

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