The G-Word

The G-Word

Are IT departments too focused on governance?

Sit in an Australian pub on most days and I'd bet London to a brick that before long some patron will start bemoaning the excessive amount of government in this country. They'll pour out all the problems that too much government generates. These usually include: the many taxes that are burdening us, the inefficiencies caused by too much bureaucracy and the stifling of initiative. But I often wonder if the people who advocate small government in general aren't the same people who introduced the word "governance" into the IT lexicon in the first place.

For the past couple of years it's been almost impossible for me to meet a CIO without hearing the g-word. CIOs have gone to great lengths to ensure that the accountability for IT investments is understood by their business. However, I question whether IT departments have become too narrowly focused on governance. The impression I get is that governance is seen in terms of authoritarian control rather than participatory democracy. I believe we need to view IT governance as way of enfranchising the various decision makers to produce better business results.

Held Accountable

The term "governance" started to become in vogue within the industry around the time of the dotcom crash. As enthusiasm for the transformative powers of IT waned, a perception arose among many in business that they'd invested large amounts of money in IT with little return. David Murray from the Commonwealth Bank went as far as claiming in a speech to the World IT Congress in Adelaide in 2002 that the IT industry was single-handedly responsible for the then-current global economic downturn.

Organizations everywhere seemed to simultaneously reach the conclusion that the answer lay in doing more to keep IT accountable. Yet I wonder whether this is a fair perception. Studies from The Standish Group suggest that the outcomes from IT projects have improved markedly over the past decade. Their ongoing research shows that the success rate for IT projects (projects that are delivered on time, on budget and with all the envisaged functionality) has gone up from 16 percent of all IT projects in 1994 to 34 percent in 2003. Conversely, the failure rate (projects that are cancelled) has gone down from 31 percent to 15 percent. There is still much room for improvement, but surely the same could be said of other business areas, like sales, HR and advertising?

My concern is that an inordinate focus on using governance for control will eventually lead to a chorus of complaints. Just as people say that government equals bureaucracy, business will similarly rail against IT's attempts to rigorously follow governance processes. Executives will see opportunities lost while the IT department attempts to get the I's dotted and T's crossed on a new project. End users will complain about the costs in time and resources needed to patrol IT governance effectively.

My beef is not with the need for governance. There is enough evidence to show that good government combines vision, strength and integrity to enhance the lives of the majority of its citizens. Such attributes would undoubtedly benefit the deployment of IT in any organization. However, it is now time for the IT industry to challenge the control freaks of the business.

IT has been progressively getting its house in order. There is still huge untapped potential in IT. Surely the focus for business should be to explore how governance procedures can help it mine those opportunities.

We need to look at IT in terms of business empowerment rather than cost control. When we achieve that, we'll also discover how IT can add value. And every executive would want to drink to that. Who knows? They might even shout the drinks at the pub.

Peter Hind is a freelance consultant and commentator with nearly 25 years experience in the IT industry. He is co-author of The IT Manager's Survival Guide and ran the InTEP IS executive gatherings in Australia for over 10 years.

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