As we start a new year, it is a time for me to reflect on what has passed, look ahead to what may be, and decide where to focus in 2010.
Not surprisingly, my two most referenced blog tags in 2009 were value and governance. Value because I believe that this is ultimately what everything we do should be about, and should certainly be the desired outcome of any investment, including, but certainly not limited to investment in IT-enabled change. Governance, because effective governance establishes the framework than ensures that management decisions and actions are focused on creating and sustaining value from investments – through their full life-cycle from ideation to the management and eventual retirement of resulting assets.
I have found myself in many debates about value, including whether value is as or more important than cost or risk, or whether value implies financial and ignores intangibles. The Val IT ™ framework cuts through this debate by defining value as “total life cycle benefits net of total life cycle costs adjusted for risk and (in the case of financial value) the time value of money”, and recognizing that benefits can be financial or non-financial. I prefer the term non-financial here to intangible as this can imply that the benefit cannot be measured. My definition of an intangible benefit is one whose contribution to value we have not yet learned to measure.
When it comes to governance, we must move beyond IT governance which perpetuates the separation between two solitudes of IT and the business. With IT embedded in just about everything we do, and becoming increasingly more so, we need to view governance of IT as an integral part of strategic enterprise governance – not a separate afterthought. We need to move away from simply talking about IT – which implies the technology alone – to IT-enabled change. IT in and of itself delivers no value – it is indeed a commodity and a cost. It is how the business uses IT as a tool, to enable or, increasingly, to shape organizational change that actually creates or sustains value for the enterprise. The implication of this is that we will come nowhere near realizing the potential value of IT-enabled change until we have effective governance with appropriate engagement, ownership and accountability from business leadership – governance that encompasses the full life-cycle of an investment decision, including the original investment and the resulting assets.
My thoughts around what is going to take to get such effective governance include:
- We need to shift the focus of governance to value.
- Value does not come from technology itself (in this regard I would question the 2009 Capgemini Global CIO Report that assigns 20% of value to the technology) – it comes from how people use the information that technology “provides”. I have said in the past and continue to believe that information and people are the most important yet under-utilized/leveraged assets in any enterprise.
- While the awareness (I would not go as far as saying understanding) of executives and business management of the importance of IT is certainly (in words at least) increasing they still generally abdicate responsibility and accountability for realizing value from IT to the IT function.
- It may be useful here to explore the parallels (or not) with the HR function. Like IT, HR is pervasive and people are embedded in all of what an enterprise does yet, while the HR function sets HR policies and ensures compliance with laws and regulations, management of HR is recognized as the responsibility and accountability of line management – not abdicated to the HR function. This does not necessarily mean that it is done well but the responsibility and accountability are accepted.
- Most of today’s CIOs are not capable of fulfilling the role that has been abdicated to them or even of building the bridges that are necessary to develop the partnership with the business that is essential to move forward – many probably (again, despite what they might say) don’t want, or are not willing to do so. A recent BCS poll identified the top 10 critical topics for CIOs, 8 of which could be addressed by adopting the principles, processes and practices contained in frameworks such as Val IT, but a leading CIO Group took the attitude that whilst they might be critical issues, they are intractable and will be with us for the next decade at least or until something traumatic happens to shake the Executive Suite into taking notice.
- We don’t need any more frameworks – there is no shortage of books, frameworks, methods, techniques, tools etc. to address the effective governance and management of IT and the use of IT to create and sustain value – it is the adoption of these that is painfully slow.
- In The Information Paradox, we talked about the need to change how we think, manage, and act – to change behaviour – both individual and group behaviour – from the Boardroom to the front-line. While recognizing this need, the years since the book was published have shown that we seriously underestimated the challenge this would present. This is where we now need to focus our efforts.
Behaviours do not happen in isolation – they are both influenced by and influence other factors. We need to look at a continuum of behaviour, the characteristics of behaviour – specifically expectations and constraints, how these change as complexity increases, and the role of technology in all of this. Human behaviour is at the core of the issue we are dealing with here.
- Human behaviour is a continuum from individual behaviour through group behaviour (where groups can be families, committees, organizations, communities, industries, countries, regions, societies, etc.).
- At any level, there are both expectations and constraints (habits, norms,…).
- The larger (number of individuals), and more distributed (breadth of the network) the group, the more complex this issue becomes.
- Technology, by increasingly operating across and breaking down physical constraints (geography, distance, time, etc.) has (exponentially) increased this complexity (of what is sometimes called the “ecosystem”).
- Paradoxically, with the advances in technology it is becoming simpler to introduce more complexity more quickly. As illustrated in the figure below, technology creates greater expectations while at the same time requiring increasingly significant changes to behavioural habits, or norms if those expectations are to be met – all this within an increasingly complex and interdependent “ecosystem”.
In discussing the issue of complexity with a colleague, he reminded my of the words of Thomas Homer-Dixon in The Ingenuity Gap in which he says “Looking back from the year 2100, we’ll see a period when our creations – technological, social ecological – outstripped our understanding and we lost control of our destiny. And we will think: if only – if only we’d had the ingenuity and will to prevent some of that. I am convinced that there is still time to muster that ingenuity – but the hour is late.” While he was talking of loftier issues, the words ring true here also. We need to explore these behavioural challenges and, in doing so, to attempt to provide answers (or at least some insights) to the following questions:
- How far can we realistically move value management – including measurement and attribution of benefits – from an art to a science? (I have believed and stated for a long time that it is a total waste of time to try to get too specific/accurate about attribution where – as there usually are – there are many sources of contribution. I think that it is however very important to be explicit about assumptions that are being made and the nature of the expected contribution such that indicators can be identified which can then be tracked to validate (or otherwise) the thinking behind the assumptions and the contribution.) How long should we realistically expect this to take?
- What are the individual and group behaviours that both constrain and, possibly, determine how far we can go towards value management (et al) as a science? (Some/much of this revolves around understanding and acceptance of responsibility and accountability – and, possibly the prevailing “culture of blame” – as well as learning from both unsuccessful AND successful investments).
- What are the external factors that further influence these behaviours, e.g. boom times vs. bust times, national and industry cultures, leadership styles, etc. and how do they influence the behaviour? (This raises a further question: “To what extent is there a/one “right way” of doing this?”)
- What interventions can positively change these behaviours?
I am currently working on a number of initiatives around these questions, both individually and with others, I will be talking about these more over the course of the year. Beyond talking, I will also be looking for ways to broaden the dialogue and to engage with practitioners who are wrestling with these issues on a daily basis.