Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Who owns your "IT projects"?

Recently, I and two of my colleagues put together a PPT presentation for a potential customer. We reused a presentation we had used earlier and basically stripped it down so that it focused on our main message and sales arguments to the customer. When walking through the presentation, we realized that we had no slide about information technology other than a couple of slides that mentioned the interaction between the business and its IT systems on a very high level. Being IT Management consultants - management consultants focusing on how to use IT to improve businesses - we felt a need to add one slide about the need to address the complexity of the IT legacy just to balance the presentation a little bit. How often does that happen when you make a presentation about something that to a great deal has to do with IT?

At my company we have a saying that there are no IT projects, only business projects involving more or less IT. Every IT initiative should be owned and driven by the business. Some might object to this way of seeing things. I would expect IT people that want to keep their influence and power and business people not interested in IT to belong to this category. Upgrading the mail server software to the latest version since the current version will no longer be supported by the vendor might be used as examples of a "pure" IT project that should be owned by the IT department. But it should not. It would only be a pure IT project if the mail server was not used in the business at all, which then would question its existence and cause it to be terminated.

The main point is that someone in the business should always have the ownership of initiatives involving IT, even those needs and initiatives that have been identified and requested by the IT department (such as upgrading a mail server software due to that the current version will no longer be supported by the vendor). With the ownership follows funding and taking responsibility of the business results of the initiative and the consequences for the business if it fails (such as costs related to the inability to communicate via e-mail). If there is no ownership in the business, then the initiatives which are in fact owned by the business will always have higher priority than the initiatives owned by the IT department. So, upgrading the mail server software will be in the bottom of the priority list among other IT-owned initiatives and the mail server won't be upgraded until the mail server breaks down and hurts the business (unless someone in the IT department puts it higher up in the priority list without telling the business people that it got higher priority than their initiatives).

To repeat – there are no IT projects, only business projects involving more or less IT. These include even "boring" stuff like upgrading the mail server software.


  1. Brilliant. A good amount of culture change may well be required to enable this. It is a variation on the theme of IT trying to be too accommodating... The goal is to realize that unless the business is forced to take some ownership, the business will never be able to provide a decent partnership with IT on all projects.

    Bottom line: Sink or swim for both IT and the business (together, either way).

    (I have linked this great post at technosurfer )

  2. Thanx. Culture change is key to make IT an integrated part of the business, and vice versa. I'll check out your blog.

  3. Why do you assume that IT is not part of the business? IT is a business unit like any other who efforts should be aligned with business goals. Would you suggest that there should be no "pure HR" projects and that HR projects should always be owned by the business? That does not sound like it makes much sense does it?

    The problem is not the classification of IT vs. Business projects, the problem is this perpetuation of the myth that IT is not part of the business. IT "sponsored" projects should have every bit as much validity as projects being sponsored by any other business unit, and should be triaged and prioritized by the executive team like any other based on the merit.

  4. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Are we classifying projects as IT vs Business projects because we think IT is not part of the business, or do we think that IT is not part of the business because we classify projects as either IT or business projects?

    I do not think that IT is not part of the business. I just know from experience that the IT department in many cases – by many people outside as well as inside of the IT dept – is not seen as an integrated part of the business. There is often a great void between the IT department and the ones who are relying on the resources they supply. The point I tried to make in this post is that changing how we see the ownership of the resources that IT supplies to the rest of the business is one way to close the void and integrate IT into every corner of the business.

    I’ll use your analogy with the HR unit to explain what I mean. The function of the HR unit would be to supply human resources. IT supplies IT resources such as software applications and services. Supplying these resources is their primary reason for existence. At the same time, each unit is of course responsible for enabling itself to do this (in the best way possible). Initiatives that aim to enable or improve their supply of resources, such as implementing a better software development process for the IT unit or introducing a new governance model, is of course something that should be sponsored and owned by someone within the unit itself. But, every initiative that is directly about supplying IT resources should be owned by someone on the receiving (user) side, by someone who needs it and is dependant on the IT resources. All too often, initiatives to deliver IT resources (such as upgrading the mail server software) are hap hazardously considered as something that is a pure IT matter. So they are labelled “IT projects”, becoming an internal IT project that the IT department owns and sponsors. But, the IT department naturally prioritize customer projects sponsored by their customers before their internal projects. So these projects get low priority and are not prioritized until they actually hurt the users and the business as such.

    It is my belief should skip the “IT” prefix and not talk about “IT projects”. Labeling a project as an IT project or HR project will only create silo thinking and suboptimization. Instead, we should talk about business projects, regardless who is the sponsor, what unit the sponsor belongs to or who are involved in the project team.