Friday, September 30, 2005

IT Is Like a Box of Chocolates

In a well-known fable, a group of blind men are asked to describe an elephant. Each encounters a different part of the animal, and not surprisingly, provides a very different description. In the business world, IT is very much like that proverbial elephant.

Untold sums of money get invested in IT. Yet, the business people writing the checks understand precious little about how all that money actually gets spent, or where costs can be trimmed.

I imagine business people may understand hardware costs. Those represent tangible pieces of equipment that can be physically viewed or touched. But what about software? I'd guess that's a completely different story.

Some might say that business people don't need to understand the complexities of IT software. They should simply be able to depend on their IT professionals to do that thinking for them. My opinion, though, is that that strategy isn't working particularly well which is why there is such a strong desire on the part of business people to shift responsibility to some external third party -- either an application software vendor like SAP or Oracle, or an outsourcer like EDS or IBM. There's a problem, though, with that approach. You see, information technology continues to grow at exponential rates.

According to Ray Kurzweil, one of the most remarkable and prolific inventors of the late 20th century, "It's the power and adoption of information technologies that moves exponentially." He points out, in a CNET article, that "thanks to Moore's Law and other exponential growth rates, by 2030 a $1 computer will be as powerful as the human brain." How can any reasonable, responsible business person choose to ignore knowing about IT? The World Wide Web, for all intents and purposes, is all of just ten years old. RFID has barely yet inched its way into supply chains. Who could possibly have imagined that CDs would already be almost as obsolete as vinyl records or audio tapes?

Of course, in the world of software, IT professionals themselves are often mired in confusion. IT resources are usually organized as a set of more-or-less independent silos. Each silo is responsible for a distinct enterprise function or application. This isolation is becoming increasingly untenable.

As when listening to the blind men, it can be dangerous to know what reality lies behind their descriptions -- whether and how the different pieces fit together. In effect, business people (as well as IT professionals) need a description of the IT elephant that they can understand and trust. That involves transforming from vertical silos to horizontal integration.

It's the role of "architecture" to describe the IT elephant -- to provide the big picture view. I say "picture" because human beings are predisposed to process information visually. More than 70% of our neurons are dedicated to processing visual information. Sight is unquestionably the sense we humans depend on most for navigating the world around us.

Blueprints are almost synonymous with architecture in the world of construction. These drawings are visual representations that people can grasp and understand. Software architecture, too, needs pictures, illustrations, drawings, graphical representations, so that people can comprehend what's being described.

There are many forms of software architecture. Some deal with individual programs or systems. Others describe business processes, or entities & relationships. One type, Technical Architecture, seeks to illustrate and explain an enterprise's technology portfolio.

When someone looks at past technology investments, what they see is "like a box of chocolates." It's impossible to tell what's inside. IT organizations need to be able to provide something akin to Whitman's Sampler, the first box of candy to come with its own index -- a diagram in the box lid showing the filling in each candy. The index may well be credited with bringing to an end the era of candy pinchers -- those unpopular people who poked a finger into a chocolate coated piece to find out whether it was a caramel or a cream.


Post a Comment

<< Home