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IT governance: Making the case without cutting your throat

Think outside the black box

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Lab ‘IT governance’ sounds like a grandiose idea, but what is it?

In simplest terms, it’s a subset of the (even more grandiose sounding) discipline of corporate governance, focused, unsurprisingly on IT.

The idea is to reduce the ‘black box-ness’ of IT by guiding the way it is approached through taking the requirements of stakeholders such as the board, internal ‘customers’ and departments such as finance and operations into account. The goal is to establish the right scope and parameters for IT (systems) so that IT (people) knows what is expected of it and them and the business knows what to expect in return.

‘The market’ has become more interested in all this over the last five years or so for a number of reasons. Some relate to compliance initiatives (eg Sarbanes-Oxley and Basel II) but equally as much, the reason is because IT now plays a huge role in supporting or impacting how a business performs.

Conceptually it’s a worthy enough idea so what’s not to like? The big push-back for many organisations is inertia. Introducing a ‘new initiative’ labelled ‘IT governance’ is as likely to draw deep intakes of breath from the business as it is from IT.

Many organisations will already have some form of steering group designed to set objectives and goals for IT. They may be inclusive, open forums where individual representatives from the business and IT side of the house actually get to debate and (hopefully) reach sensible decisions for the greater good. Or they may simply be rubber stamping exercises which offer no real opportunity for establishing and guiding change in IT as the priorities of the business change.

Lest we forget, many IT departments are already sensitive to the requirements of the business. They are even more sensitive to the opportunities – and threats – afforded by the latest developments in IT, whether we’re thinking about exploiting virtualisation technology or the challenges of sourcing and managing the emerging services on offer from third parties.

However, it’s these latter elements which make the case for getting to grips with how an organisation marshals the use of IT even more important today than in the past. As business evolves, so too does the demand on IT. As IT moves from ‘static and reactive’ models towards ‘dynamic and flexible’ service-oriented environments, the need to get and keep things aligned becomes even more critical.

Looking ahead, IT done properly will only increase in value to the business. Hence, a huge opportunity to re-state IT’s contribution is going begging if the current status quo is not challenged. At the very least, it’s time for IT to market itself internally more loudly as supporting the business through the services it currently offers and those which it could or should offer if it had a more consistent steer from the business.

In practice, IT governance is about coming up with shared goals and sharing responsibility for setting them. What the IT department does after that is still IT’s job: make it all work together, deliver services that don’t fall over, and help users make the most of what they are given. The same issues and problems will occur while doing all this as have come up time and again, ever since the first set of users had their first ever IT training course before wandering off and ignoring all the good advice they were given.

However, with ‘IT governance’ in place - as formally or as informally as deemed appropriate in your business - the principle idea is that you’re now working within the scope of an agreed set of objectives, rather than flying blind and second guessing what priorities are on a monthly or quarterly basis. You’re helping deliver what everyone took responsibility for deciding. If nothing else, this may be a much more comfortable place for IT to be working from than it is in many organisations today.

But we can talk about good ideas until we’re blue in the face. What really matters is where the rubber meets the road. And that’s where you come in.

Is IT governance a metaphor for bureaucracy and inaction in your organisation, or have you found it to be a positive force in aligning your efforts to the needs of the business? Alternatively, you may feel that your ‘governance free’ approach to IT works very well, thanks very much.

Regardless, as always, we’d love to hear about your own circumstances. ®

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