Growing Better Information Systems

I haven't had much time, in a very long time, to write much here. I generally find myself too tired to be bothered, because for all intents I spend my days baffled by the view of Information Technology (IT) that plagues the world of business. The narrow view that IT is a thing, an object, and simple is one that I have difficulty understanding for two reasons: the obvious ongoing, cyclic problems in IT strongly indicate a systemic failure that suggests the current business view is flawed, so one would imagine bean-counters would question the view itself; and in a world where computer systems are so ubiquitous, one would think by now there was a better basic understanding of proper application. Perhaps I shouldn't be so shocked how skewed the perception of IT is, but I remain eternally baffled by it nonetheless.

The reason I began my latest tour of duty with an effort to substitute the words Information Systems (IS) for Information Technology was to linguistically offset the embedded mistaken view of IT, to replace the archaic view that gear substituted somehow for better integrated design. I failed, of course, for the same reasons all professionals in this field do -- I counted on communication to offset perceived experience. I stress the experience is perceived, because people integrate their experiences with IT in an unreal way. If something appears to work, they accept it and become ensnared by it to a degree where it will always be the "best" way. If something fails it will always be because of bad IT. Seldom, if ever, does anyone think of boundaries -- and never does anyone ask a fundamental question about the proper application of the proper systems under the proper processes. Almost no one makes the integral connection between people, process and machines in a realistic way.

But growing better IS is an absolute necessity if managed change creates a foundation for excellence. You cannot stagnate, and never can you lose sight of the way things should look 2 to 5 years down the path. To do so, to bury oneself in the minutia of now, is to lose the advantages presented by a continuous improvement model. And yet even the best companies -- even technology firms -- seem completely detached from this idea of cyclic improvement. Even companies where the reality of the past is choking productivity visibly fall into the bizarre pattern whereby the growing pains of applying better IS is blamed for the exposures that bad IT created. And while I understand the reasons for that -- exposure hurts -- it flies in the face of the whole purpose of systems.

Recently Bill Gates has talked about taxing robots, which is one of the two occurrences that triggered this missive. Not because robots are good or bad, or because Bill Gates said the word tax; but because in principle his observation actually reflects the real and broad impact of IS in the world. he was observing that this taxation option was a reasonable response to the integrated effect automation is having on the broader society. He was observing that IS is part or the world, and needs to be managed for continuous improvement of not just the solutions...but of the society in which the IS resides. His observation is not only true, but highlights the ultimate engaged view -- a view about how IS actually affects the world.

The other occurrence was more mundane, and I won't go into details here because it isn't appropriate. But it came about when I was faced with recognizing that even smart people who deserve a lot of respect have no real understanding of IS as a weapon for improvement. They still view the business application of IT -- gear -- as the fundamental role of IS in business. And they still frequently subscribe to the fatal view that involving IT at a business level makes sense. The idea that IT must identify platform benefits is sound, but the idea that IT should or can enforce the use of platform sets is simply odd. Weirdly, it is not even a role that IS should play; because if you let IS force use patterns, you lose the functional benefit of non-technical expertise. Having IT or IS dictate use is tantamount to having a farmer who grows a potato command those who bake it exactly how to do that. Yes, it will be baked, but the expertise of the cooks is essentially discounted in favor of someone who grows the ingredients.

The point of this ramble is simply this: growing better IS is about designing systems to capture and echo expertise that is not about IT, but about empowerment. Yes, some mechanics are set in stone by such designs, but the application of tools is the creative part that can seldom be enforced by the designer. To start with the view that IS or IT should be a definitive provider of the last word on use of anything is a flawed view of what technology and systems are meant to do. Process definition is a business function, not a mechanical one. Process is defined by business knowledge. It can be modeled by IT (and far better by IS), but it cannot be set by technologists. And communication is a key in any case, which when missing, creates dissatisfaction and a destructive stagnation.

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