IT Isn’t Broken

It’s just a hell of a lot harder than we are given credit for.

Enter FiveThirtyEight Science on Science Isn’t Broken (“It’s just a hell of a lot harder than we give it credit for”). Science is messy by design. Scientific methods are adversarial. Scientists are competitive for mind share as well as funding. Science pushes into the unknown and forces us to recognize uncomfortable new truths.

When thinking about this 1 it occurred to me that traditional modes of managing IT are failing us. That isn’t necessarily the fault of IT departments or their supporting frameworks, or not entirely. Over the last decade I have worked with over 200 IT organizations in a variety of industries and geographies. Some IT departments are better than others, but overall IT staff have become cooperative, thoughtful, and motivated to fulfill the needs of their stakeholders. This is a major shift in mindset from when we regularly disparaged “users” as “lusers”, “PEBKACs”, or “identity (or ID10T) errors”. 2

All is not well;
I doubt some foul play; would the night were come!
– Hamlet (1.2.254), Hamlet, alone on the platform.

This is not to say all is well in IT Service Management or ITIL®.3

  • Interest in ITIL® certifications is flat, and declining in most regions except Europe and Asia, the latter primarily meaning India. ITIL is largely irrelevant in the rest of the world, or rapidly becoming so.
  • None of the frameworks built in parallel with ITIL®, including IEC/ISO 20000 and COBIT5, have made any traction.
  • Best practices and good practices are, by definition, past practices. The framework is ineffective in complex environments in which cause and effect relationships are obvious only in retrospect, and in which emergent behaviors are unpredictable.
  • The ITIL® framework, itself long in the tooth, was last updated in 2011 with no refresh in sight.
  • AXELOS and ISACA have increasingly turned their attention to information security with their RESILIA™ framework and Cybersecurity Nexus portal, respectively. This is a natural extension for ISACA and a slight departure for AXELOS.

  • IT is so hard in part because it is complex. In a few short years the industry has transitioned from traditional servers, to virtual servers and increasingly to containers. Container orchestration is improving just as hybrid containers and hyperconverged infrastructure standards are appearing. IT services are increasingly delivered via a combination of in-house and cloud vendors, each of which operates with different standards and API’s. Meanwhile, security attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated as the attackers become professionals.

    Progress is arriving from outside of IT operations, in the form of Lean and Agile practices, and codified (more or less) under the umbrella of DevOps (Let’s Not Paper Over the Differences), many of which specifically reject the bureaucracy erected by the process focus of traditional frameworks.4

    What will emerge in two years is anyone’s guess. If your head isn’t spinning, you aren’t paying attention. IT departments are paying attention, even if they do not have the tools for managing it. What they don’t need is 4 more processes in the next revision of ITIL® or more control points in COBIT5.

    One thing we do need is a framework for managing complexity. The Cynefin Framework shows promise for helping to manage the trade-offs between discovering emergent behaviors and exploiting them. Cynefin is not a panacea, but once the nature of complexity is understood, it follows that panaceas only exist in ancient mythologies. IT departments, meanwhile, will continue muddling along, hobbled but not broken.

    1. Science is an imperfect metaphor for IT Service Management because IT should be cooperative, not competitive. However, IT does function in economic environments that are, by nature, competitive. IT relies heavily on vendors whose interests are not necessarily aligned with their customers. 
    2. The fact that most people stopped referring to them as “users” is major progress, but perhaps this is because IT has stopped being the tail that wags the dog — and become the dog. 
    3. ITIL and RESILIA are registered trademarks of AXELOS Limited. 
    4. Although ITSM has shifted its focus from processes to services, the latter are largely misunderstood even by IT. Stakeholders outside of IT are largely disinterested in Service Catalogs.