Waltzing with the Elephant

I have just finished reading Mark Toomey‘s Waltzing with the Elephant, subtitled A comprehensive guide to directing and controlling information technology. This has taken me longer than I had thought as the book is indeed very comprehensive. I was reminded as I read it of a comment from an early reader of The Information Paradox who described it as  “a book you want to have read but don’t want to read. If you’re an executive with control over your company’s information technology purse strings, you probably don’t want to read a book this detailed in the intricacies of IT, which is exactly the reason that you should.” But will they? I will return to this point later.

As Mark says in the book’s dedication “Through better, more responsible, and effective decision making and control, we can make better use of information technology, and we can improve the world.” I couldn’t agree more – indeed it is that belief that has driven me for the last 20+ years, and which continues to drive me. There is certainly considerable room for improvement – as Mark goes on to say “…there is a compelling reason to improve the performance of IT use within many organizations.” I would  be even stronger here in that I believe this to be the case in most, if not all organizations.

Waltzing with the Elephant is organized around the the six principles of ISO/IEC 38500:2008:

  • responsibility;
  • strategy;
  • acquisition;
  • performance;
  • conformance;
  • human behaviour.

And the three fundamental Governance tasks that it defines – Evaluate, Direct and Monitor.

Mark does a good job of explaining the principles, and of putting “meat on the bones” of what can be seen as fairly high level and broad concepts. The book is a long, but relatively easy read – helped by Mark’s refreshingly irreverent style, and the many real world examples and anecdotes he has included. Mark also makes good use of models to frame and organize sections, including an earlier version my Strategic Governance framework. Although my brief summary may not do the book justice, what I believe you should take away from it, somewhat adapted and, of course, biased by my beliefs, include:

  1. While much has been written and talked about IT governance over the last decade or more,  progress has been painfully slow. As Ian Wightwick says in his introduction, “…there is a fairly strong case for arguing that the investment in IT improvement has not delivered the desired rate of improvement.”
  2. Slide2

  3. A fundamental reason for this lack of progress is that most IT governance activities  deal only with one side of the problem – the supply side. This is what another Australian colleague of mine, Chris Gillies, calls IT governance of IT –  focused on the IT “factory”. If we are to have effective enterprise governance of IT,  as illustrated in the figure to the right, we also need to pay equal attention to the demand side – business governance of IT – focused on how the organization uses IT to create and sustain business value. For more on this, go to Back to the Basics – the Four “Ares”.
  4. If we are to make progress, there must be the  understanding that governance of IT is an important part of the overall governance framework for any organization, and that governance itself is a business system.  Governance must deal with both compliance (meeting regulatory and legislative requirements) and performance (setting and achieving goals).
  5. Ultimately, the people who should control, and be accountable for how IT is used are the business executives and managers who determine what the focus of the business is, how the business processes are performed, how the authority and control structure operates, and how the people in the system perform their roles. None of these decisions are normally within the scope of the CIO, and so, without the means of enacting any decision, the CIO cannot be held responsible or accountable for the organization‟s use of IT. The CIO should be responsible for administering the system of governance on behalf of the governing body, and accountable for most elements of the supply of IT, but not responsible for the demand and certainly not accountable for the use of IT by the business.
  6. Increasingly, we are not making investments in IT  – we are making investments in IT-enabled change. While IT may be a key enabler, all the other aspects of the business system – the business model, business processes, people, and organization need to be considered. Enterprise governance of IT must  go beyond IT strategy, the IT project portfolio and IT projects to more broadly consider the business strategy, and the portfolio(s) of business investment programmes and business and technology projects that enable and support the strategy (for more on Programme and Project Portfolio Management, go to Moving Beyond PPM to P3M and Get With The Programme.)
  7. It is not enough to just focus governance on new investments. Effective governance must cover the full life-cycle of investment decisions – covering both the initial investments and the assets that result from those investments – assets that all too often fall into what Mark calls the “business as usual” space and receive little attention until something goes wrong.
  8. Essential ingredients of the system for governance of IT include transparency and engagement. Transparency means that there is only one version of the truth – that real, accurate and relevant information flows up, down and across the system to support decision making. Engagement means that, at each level, the right people are involved in the system, in the right way with clearly defined, understood and accepted roles, responsibilities and accountabilities.
  9. Effective governance of IT will rarely be achieved by simply following a standard or a generic framework. Rather, it requires fundamental thinking about the issues that are important, and it requires that the leaders of the organization behave in ways that maximise the value and contain the risks in their current and future use of IT.
  10. Ultimately, while standards, such as  ISO/IEC 38500, and frameworks, such as Val IT™ are useful tools, improving the return on IT investments, and improving governance around those investments and resulting assets is about changing human behaviour. Merely developing and issuing policy is insufficient in driving the comprehensive behavioural change that is essential for many organizations that will seek to implement or improve the effectiveness of their enterprise governance of IT. Behaviour is key…changing or implementing a new system for governance of IT necessarily involves taking all of those people on a journey of change – which for some will be quite straight-forward and which for others, will be profoundly challenging.
  11. This journey of change must be managed as an organizational change programme. While much has been written and should be known about this, the absence of attention to the individual and organisational contexts of human behaviour in plans for IT enabled change to business systems is profound. Where there is understanding of the need to do something, enterprises often then run into “The Knowing-Doing Gap” as described by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton in their book  of the same name. As the authors say in their preface, “…so many managers know so much about organisational performance, and work so hard, yet are trapped in firms that do so many things that they know will undermine performance.” They found that “…there [are] more and more books and articles, more and more training programs and seminars, and more and more knowledge that, although valid, often had little or no impact on what managers actually did.” For more about this, go to The Knowing-Doing Gap.

I want to return now to my initial comment about who will read this book. In a recent review of the book, Fiona Balfour described it as recommended reading for academics, students of technology, all IT Professionals and “C‟ role leaders and company directors. The book provides very comprehensive and practical guidance for those who have decided that action is required, but will those who have not yet understood or committed to action read it or, more importantly, take action based on it? Almost a year ago, I was having lunch in London with Kenny MacIver, then Editor of Information Age who, after listening to me expound on this topic for some time, said “What you are saying is that we need a clarion call!” Mark’s book adds significant value to those who have decided to embark on this journey, and he is to be commended for the tremendous effort that he has put into it and for his willingness to share his experience and wisdom – but will it provide that Clarion call? It will play well to the converted, but will it convert? Going back to Ian Wightwick’s introduction, he says “Clearly the purpose of Mark Toomey‟s text is to promote the need for adequate IT governance. It is commendable in this regard, but is only the beginning. Company director (including CEO) education courses and regular director briefings will need appropriate attention with provision of simplified explanatory material and check-lists, as well as encouraging the de-mystifying of the whole business-critical IT issue.”

Despite overwhelming evidence of the need to take action to improve enterprise governance of IT, business leadership – boards, executives and business managers – have shown little appetite for getting engaged and taking accountability for their use of IT to create and sustain business value, or to embrace the transparency that must go with it. I hope that, at least in Australia, the emergence of the ISO standard, and  Mark’s book provide that much needed “clarion call”. History, unfortunately, tells us that it may take more than this – we may still have a long way to go!

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