I recently spoke at a conference attended by senior business and IT people from accounting firms. I described my usual view on IT Magic: that when Information Technology gets too complex, it’s perceived as magic; then there are lots of problems for IT because business people develop unrealistic expectations. In the Q&A with attendees, one of the audience members asked an interesting question, “Is there ever a situation when IT magic is good?”
In the conversation that followed, it became apparent that this particular questioner — the head of IT for an accounting firm — is so trusted by his business partners that they blindly turn all of the IT direction over to him. He doesn’t bother to explain to them why certain technologies are chosen, why he uses the level of infrastructure security that he does, or how his software and outsourcing choices contribute to the success of the firm. He is apparently given carte blanche to do whatever he thinks needs to be done, and he lets his IT work become magical to his business partners. Now he was describing his situation and asking me, “What’s wrong with that?” And you may feel the same way.
Trust is Good
Let me separate out two different things that are going on with this IT leader. First, he has been highly successful in getting the trust of his business partners. That is undoubtedly a good thing. Trust means that he is respected by the business leaders of his firm, and they know that he has their best interests at heart. It probably also means — at least I hope so — that he participates in high-level strategy discussions on the direction of the firm, the firm’s weaknesses and its plans to strengthen them, and the firm’s strengths and its plans to leverage them. All this high-level communication puts him in a good position to put together a complete and appropriate IT strategy for the business, and to align IT direction with that strategy.
So far, so good. I applaud his ability to gain and earn business trust. I’ve been in that position myself a few times over the years, and I know how nice it is to be trusted enough that you don’t have to plead for project money.
But Magic is Bad
On the other hand, I’m very concerned about his emphasis on magic and even wizardry (the perception that IT people are wizards because of the magic they can provide). I feel that with trust comes obligation — not just the obligation to act in a trustworthy manner, but also the obligation to be transparent.
Transparency is kicked around a lot lately in politics, but to me transparency means that people have a certain level of visibility into what you’re doing with your time and with the money that you’ve been allocated. It doesn’t mean that they have to watch over your actions on a day-by-day basis — it just means that they can see traceable evidence of your progress, and they constantly get positive reassurance that you’re doing the right things.
Transparency of Complexity is Important Too
But there’s another aspect of information technology transparency that people tend to forget. Business processes that involve information are complex, and information systems are often put in place to simplify things for the business user. But the original complexity of the business process doesn’t disappear — it’s just passed from the business user to the IT organization. This follows Larry Tesler’s Law of Conservation of Complexity:
“Every application must have an inherent amount of irreducible complexity. The only question is who will have to deal with it. “
You may remember that Canon used a similar slogan a few years ago in advertising their cameras. They said that a Canon camera was “so advanced, it’s simple.” In essence, Canon was claiming that because the Canon engineers successfully dealt with the complexity of taking digital photographs, the camera user shouldn’t have to deal with that complexity.
Often the business forgets how much inherent complexity has been passed from the business user to IT. And if the IT organization isn’t careful, that forgotten complexity turns into the perception of magic, including the feeling that the business user is getting something for nothing. The ongoing effort required in IT to support the hidden complexity is forgotten and taken for granted, and business people begin to wonder why the Information Technology organization is spending so much.
Magic versus Transparency
To me, magic and transparency are opposites. Magic means that things happen without a good explanation. Transparency means that things happen, but that you’re aware of how they’re being done, and you can appreciate both the things themselves and the work that went into them. Transparency shows effort, progress and result. Magic shows only result, and makes you wonder how it was accomplished.
Now again you may be wondering, “Why is it bad to hide the effort and progress? Why is transparency a good idea?”
Why Transparency is Good
Here’s why: Because sooner or later, the business is going to experience financial obstacles which cause it to reevaluate its expenditures. Or maybe the business will be acquired, and new management will question whether to keep the old IT or replace it with IT from the parent company. In those situations, all areas of business expense will be reevaluated. Budget cut-backs may ensue, or whole departments may be eliminated, combined or outsourced. If your department has relied on magic for its good reputation, then you’ve got a good chance that your department will be cut back. Senior management will be looking for cuts which will maximize their savings-to-loss ratio. And if your IT department hasn’t been transparent about where business investment has gone, then it will be very difficult for you to explain how budget cuts will affect the business.
On the other hand, if you’ve been transparent, then it ought to be easy to say something like this:
“Yes, we can cut the IT budget 10%. It will have the following impact on the business: These projects will be delayed [and you name them]. The support levels for these applications will decline [and you give specifics]. These key business systems will run more slowly because of decreased network capacity [and you name the systems and give your estimate of slower performance]. The probability of a system outage or data security breach will climb from x% to y% [and you give specifics and provide the logic behind your calculations]. And the impact of all this on the business will be [and you give specifics on how these changes will affect the business].”
With transparency, you can do that. With transparency, you can easily show the impact of budget changes (either down or up) because you are accounting for the resource you’ve been allocated.
And Why Magic is Bad
But if you’ve chosen to use magic instead — if you’ve deliberately hidden your hard work and taken credit as a wizard who can do anything — then woe be unto you. Because wizards who can create something great out of minimal resources are expected to be able to reduce their resources without impacting their great results.
And that’s what I told the questioner who asked about good magic: IT magic is never good, and if you insist on using magic — on deliberately avoiding transparency in your IT work — then sooner or later it will come back and bite you in the butt. Because sooner or later the perception of magic won’t be enough; you’ll need to actually be able to tie specific parts of the IT budget to specific deliverables and services. And if you can’t, then your days as a successful IT magician or wizard will be over.