Is there hope out there in the real world? Yes, there is!

Theories¬†about managing the application of information technology are not all a crock. I don’t think this is what the ‘practical’ people mean when they get impatient with ‘waffle’ and say theorists are not ‘real world’. I think their complaints are valid in fact about certain parts of certain theories, but not about the basic messages. The complaints are also valid as symptoms about two other concerns:

  1. ‘practical’ people have difficulty accepting the idea that their complex problems can be explained by any theory, especially a ‘not-invented-here’ theory;
  2. even when such a theory does seem right, the people involved cannot see their managers as being able or willing to accept what the information engineer’s basic message means.

What is that basic message? The main points which I am hearing as I study and practice and help people gain success in the real world of using information technology are:

  • Information processing is important and still growing in importance to every organization which values good planning and control; i.e., to every organization which perceives good management of its resources as being essential to its competitive survival. Information technology and the systems which use it and the information itself are too important to leave solely to those who are experts on its provision.
  • The management of information technology is usually ineffective, because it is misunderstood. It is misunderstood both because of the relative newness of its importance, and because of its continuously new technologies. As Karl Popper expounds, each new solution leads to new problems, and in information technology this happens so quickly that we cannot tell until too late whether what we are experiencing is the solution, or the problem, or both at the same time.
  • There are stages of growth in acquiring and successfully using information technology which cannot be skipped and should not be ignored. If someone is falling from an aeroplane (a not wholly inappropriate analogy), mere diagnosis (I’m falling) is not in itself a cure. Probability of survival is enhanced by knowledge of which stages of the fall are optimised by which management actions. The effectiveness of open parachute¬†and remove parachute depends on the stages at which they are used.
  • The movement through the growth stages can be managed, but has a inherent speed limit. Things go better if they are put into perspective and if the stages are planned. There are quite a few good techniques and methods for doing this, but while having this professional expertise is essential it is not enough. There must also be experiential learning: no matter how good your ski instructor, start out on the beginner’s slope.

It is good to have a framework for managing information technology, and there are several which can serve the purpose. For example, Richard Nolan’s growth stages theory in the 1980s was not necessarily the only possible concept for explaining and therefore being able to manage IT, but it is one concept. It is a valid concept, because it encompasses the ideas of process, and it is useful, because it provides a framework.

Frameworks for managing information technology are like numerals for doing sums. No one framework is ideal (optimists and true socialists would add ‘yet’) nor does any framework give magic answers which remove the need to try to manage. Nolan’s framework does give one way ‘to get your head around’ the problem of managing (properly exploiting) the information technology investment.

It provides a setting in which management can establish baselines and anchor points within which they can plan and control information technology. This framework enables the management process to be synchronised with the needs of the business, rather than being a reactive process driven by technology.

To provide such a framework is no mean feat, nor is it a crock. The specialists and technology experts need a framework as much as anyone else, and they probably want it more because they experience daily the frustrations of being in the GUANO system, Generally Useless and No Objectives.

‘Practical’ people ask tough questions and are suspicious not because they believe all theory a crock, but because they want a framework which is logically unassailable – in the hope that it will therefore be accepted by senior management.

That is not likely, that is magic answers.

A framework is, so to speak, a way of counting, and although if you can’t count it (in numerals Roman, Arabic or Nolan) you can’t manage it, still management must say what counts.

To sum up, I think that the growth stages is one good working hypothesis about how to manage information technology, and I think we can profit by using it (judiciously) unless we find a more useful framework.

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