Compromise Is at Heart of IT Governance

Ann All

I'm having trouble getting my 9-year-old to brush his teeth. I've explained why it's important and so has our dentist. He gets it. But as a kid who doesn't like routine and resists anything he finds boring, he doesn't want to take the time to do it. When he does brush, he spends about 30 seconds on the task, so he's obviously not giving it the attention it deserves.


The way my son views this bit of personal hygiene reminds me of the way many organizations see IT governance. It's an unwelcome chore that requires short-term sacrifice for long-term gain.


Not only that, but the idea of governance doesn't mesh well with increasing demands for more "flexibility" and "agility." After all, what's agile about decisions made by committee?


Jonathan Reichental, Ph.D., CIO of O'Reilly Media, touched on this in a column for O'Reilly Radar. It's often tough to win buy-in for an IT governance program, he writes, because "in effect, you have to introduce a modicum of bureaucracy which will often arouse aversion by business leaders."


IT governance "requires that the scarce resource of technology capacity be diligently distributed across the organization for overall business success," he says. While this sounds great in principle, it's not always popular in practice as many teams tend to think their needs should be given priority.


Organizations must focus on the core value of compromise to make IT governance work, Reichental writes:

If participants are focused on the success of the entire business, compromise becomes easier. Those not used to this type of approach will initially be frustrated, and that's why the first few months are essential. You have to demonstrate that this is a better way to manage your scarce IT resources.

At O'Reilly Media, a governance review board comprised of senior executives from each business function debates each request for IT resources, prioritizing them based on overall corporate goals to create a roadmap of IT projects. Business leaders are happy because they know what IT is working on and when it expects to deliver solutions. The IT organization is happy because it "understands the role of the solution relative to other systems and goals."


The process is hardly easy, however. A few folks commenting on Reichental's post mentioned some common IT governance challenges:

  • New business opportunities and problems come up all the time. IT governance bodies must be able to react to them quickly.
  • There's a constant tension between day-to-day IT activities and new projects.
  • Teams resist change.
  • The governance body experiences difficulty reaching consensus.
  • A governance body may be too far removed from problems to get an accurate handle on them.


Reichental responded that roadmaps "should be as fluid as your organization's strategy" and should change when strategy shifts, even if it means delaying or shutting down projects. O'Reilly Media has created communications mechanisms that allow anyone in the organization to pitch a new proposal, which Reichental said "helps to avoid any gap that might be present between those voting and 'regular' staff." The governance review board strives to achieve a 40/60 ratio between maintenance work and investment activities. He advised:

Your organizational needs will dictate your spread, but you do need to figure out what works so that you can manage capacity effectively.

A reader called PeterM left what I thought were some very smart comments. He listed some factors for IT governance success: IT personnel that "really know what is going on in the business," a well-defined business strategy to guide decisions, participation of all business units and keeping folks engaged with governance efforts over time. He also suggested an interesting benefit of IT governance:

... It seems that, by extension, businesses that have developed the ability to make effective decisions regarding IT investment might also be equipped to make intelligent decisions in other business areas. ...

I dove into the IT Business Edge archives (back to 2008) to track down some tips on IT governance from Alan Calder, who has written several books on the subject. I found a post including some of his suggestions as well as tips I'd gleaned from my interview with an executive from the IT Governance Institute. Several of them mesh with Reichental's advice.

  • Enlist senior management to ensure a top-down approach.
  • Utilize a best-practices framework like the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) or Control Objectives for Information and Related Technology (COBIT).
  • Include folks from both IT and the business on governance teams.
  • Ban technological jargon from governance discussions. (This should help keep business leaders engaged.)
  • Introduce professional IT audits, modeled on the more familiar financial audits.
  • Stress that governance's biggest benefit is the enhanced competitiveness that results from integrating IT into the organization's approach to strategic and operational management.

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