Inertia in IT – Changing Hearts and Minds

Tradition isn't just a song from Fiddler on the Roof - IT departments can be too traditional.

Tradition isn't just a song from Fiddler on the Roof - IT departments can be too traditional.

It is ironic that IT departments, whom people would assume would be most comfortable with change, can be in fact some of the most hide-bound corporate employees rigidly bound to traditions and policies that may no longer be relevant to today’s business environment.

This can be for several reasons.

If it works, don’t mess with it“. This leads to stagnation as IT teams can be reluctant to upgrade programs, switch vendors, migrate to new software packages and give new technologies a fair hearing.  When the first virtualization products were released, most IT departments were very skeptical of using them in production environments and relegated them only to the labs. Now an IT department that isn’t virtualizing a significant portion of their server environment is short-changing their company and missing out on the opportunity to reduce costs while improving performance and disaster recovery efforts.  

Over time this resistance to change becomes real inertia and can morph into a slavish devotion to particular vendors – dooming the IT department and a company to being laggards in the marketplace. Sometimes this strong preference for a particular vendor makes sense. In the 1970’s a common saying was “no one ever got fired for buying an IBM.”  This saying resonated because it highlighted the potential risk and ramifications inherent in making purchasing decisions. Especially given the pace of change and the constant stream of new competitors competing for IBM’s mainframe and mini-computer business at the time.

For many people the computer has replaced the shovel. I made this sign for my office.

For many people the computer has replaced the shovel. I made this sign for my office.

An update of this saying might be: “No one ever got fired for buying Cisco.” Given Cisco’s dominance in the router marketplace,  the benefits – both performance and cost – have to be pretty compelling for an IT department to choose a different competitor. Especially when considering forward compatibility. If you were a network administrator who chose Nortel (or even Bay) instead of Cisco, you would now be faced with a product from a bankrupt company on its way to dissolution. But if you had chosen Cisco you’d have a product that will be supported in some fashion for the foreseeable future running Cisco IOS, so your skills would be transferable forward.

This mindset also continues in the choice of virtualization platforms. Too many network administrators continue to install, acquire, upgrade and deploy software and hardware without giving the competition a fair viewing. This is great for VMware, but may no longer be the best strategy for your business or organization. If your company hasn’t seriously considered the merits and benefits of using the newest version of Microsoft’s Hyper-V, it’s shortchanging your shareholders because Microsoft costs are significantly lower. If IT is over-spending in this area, then maybe it’s time for to ask what other areas your IT department isn’t making fully informed decisions? And why they are choosing not to properly evaluate alternatives to VMware or other vendors? Myths and biases should never be used a basis for decision making in IT. “Oh, we don’t use that brand….because 5 years years ago it was really painful to do X with it”. Heck, 5 years it was painful to do a lot of things. Things change.

Control.  The responsibilities of IT drive many companies to try and control as many technology variables as possible, even when it isn’t always beneficial. This attempt to control IT can be taken to extremes that hobble companies preventing them from adapting to a changing marketplace. Today’s Wall Street Journal Report discusses this very topic and talks about the transformation Kraft Food Inc. underwent with respect to their technology policies. Previously Kraft Foods followed the standard corporate line on IT with the usual locked down desktops, a small range of PDA/smartphones, no Macs and website filtering software preventing access to Facebook, Youtube and other sites. Something most corporate CIOs and IT directors would still consider a  rational prudent policy.

But eventually Kraft realized that as a consumer company it was important to understand what consumers were doing with technology in an effort to better understand their customers. So website access controls were relaxed, employees got stipends to buy smartphones of their choice – with free choice to purchase any smartphone, over 60% of users chose iPhones. And Kraft Foods allowed people to start using Macs in the workplace with the caveat that users have to provide self-support using a online discussion group and not use the Windows-focused help desk. The big win for Kraft is that users are more productive using software that they understand and not software they are forced to use.

Lack of understanding.  Sometimes IT Departments are tasked with ensuring software and hardware they didn’t select, nor are they trained on, is fully functional. This lack of training and understanding leads to policies like only allowing one application per server (virtual or physical) in order to isolate each application in it’s own environment and prevent conflicts between software packages that aren’t fully understood, but that have to be implemented anyway on deadline due to business requirements. This leads to increased costs and barriers to implementing new projects, which in a time of shrinking budgets means that many initiatives which would help drive top-line revenue aren’t implemented because the initial capital costs are too high.

Reliability. Another aspect is that the IT teams have to deliver all the time, every time. This pressure to deliver uptime out to and beyond the mythical Five 9s can force IT departments to eschew newer technologies that haven’t proven themselves or to view a technology through an obsolete lens that is no longer relevant. Many IT Directors remember the challenges of trying to network Microsoft’s NT4 and Apple computers. It wasn’t easy to say the least – but many of those people still think of Apple in the same way despite the fact that Apple’s OS X Snow Leopard Server only barely resembles Apple 8.6 operating system on the surface. This stubborn reluctance to take a fresh look at  established brands and companies all in the name of reliability codifies out-moded technology concerns into policies that hamstring flexibility and responsiveness long into the future.

Reliability coupled with delight develops trust with your customers, both internal and external.

Reliability coupled with delight develops trust with your customers, both internal and external.

These issues, and many others, all too often coalesce into a fierce resistance to any change in the way things are done.  Something I saw first hand while managing a technical team selling IT outsourcing. As you might imagine IT directors were never happy to see me, or anyone on my team. This despite the fact that the only companies that met with us, were companies where the IT department had challenges. Those challenges were usually the result of a lack of resources, but IT directors and managers seemed to think that our presence was an attack on them personally.

Much of our time on-site with those clients was spent asking questions and listening to the answers, and then asking more questions. One of the best questions was to simply ask: “So what cool or interesting things are you planning on doing in the next 12 months?”  The answers normally fell into one of these two categories: either “What are you serious? I’m too busy fighting fires to do anything cool” or “well there’s this new……but I don’t have any time”.  Regardless of which category the company fit into, choosing to strategically outsource non-value-added portions of their IT infrastructure could free up both time and resources to do things that better helped the company or organization. Yet much of our time and technical efforts weren’t spent answering technical nuts and bolts minutiae specific to our services, but instead were spent developing trust and evangelizing the potential future benefits that selective IT outsourcing could bring them.

This skill isn’t one easily taught to technical teams more comfortable with Active Directory settings or Exchange server best practices. But over time those softer skills of listening to customers and helping them to internalize and understand the benefits of outsourcing did more to improve IT  and close deals than all the technical chest-beating ever could. At its core technology is actually fairly simple – insert cable A into ethernet port B; log in, update your settings, and so on. What’s hard is understanding the best way that the technology can help your organization. And remembering that what helped your organization 3 years or 5 years ago may no longer be the best way to help your organization today.

Do you have any stories about battling or overcoming IT inertia?  -t

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  1. #1 by Sara Lee Cely on 2009/11/17 - 12:05

    Thom! this was a great article- I hope that as Sara Lee Art grows I continue to find the best technology that will help it grow. Thanks!

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