Slow IT

Slow IT is a provocative name. It doesn't mean IT on a go-slow. It means slowing down the pace of business demands on IT so as to focus better on what matters, and to reduce the risk to what already exists. The intent of Slow IT is to allow IT to deliver important results more quickly. It does this by concentrating on the interfaces between business executives and CIOs. Slow IT highlights the importance of Governance of IT and of Service Portfolio in order to make the right decisions to do the right things in the right way at the right time, to maximise benefit and minimise risk. Slow IT challenges the hysterias and fads of IT to ensure that these results are really needed as quickly as we think they are. Slow IT is about trying to introduce more measured responses, to bring some sanity to the current dangerous madness that is organisational IT.

    BTW I started this post six months ago. As happens on this blog, I get the idea on the early edge of the wave then procrastinate until the wave is rising or even gone. He Tangata, for example. Boy, don't I wish I wrote that "people in IT" book back in 2009 when I launched that site. That horse has bolted. (Though I did get Working in IT published in 2009, which is a collection of articles I wrote on people in IT which date back to the early part of the millennium. I've been singing that song for a long time, but it is fair to say I have well and truly missed that wave if I'm going to do a book).

Here is a new wave I see emerging in IT. We had Slow Food decades ago. Now we are seeing Slow Business, and I hope we will see Slow IT. Tweet this. I'm appealing for it here now.

The key point I want to make is that there are absolute limits on how fast IT can go, regardless of how fast the organisation may want it to go.

Just because the technology is changing that fast doesn't mean we have to, or can. The governors or executive or customers or users can rant all they want about how IT "must" deliver faster, but we are approaching rates that simply are not humanly possible. The limits are with humans and systems: there appear to be no technical asymptotes... yet.

We don't have to slow the pace of change - it will find its own natural limits. In some cases we may choose to slow up - for safety, for sanity. It may not be good for us - as individuals or as an organisation - to be banging into those limits.

The onus is on the organisation and the customer to understand (or at least listen to) the limits of IT, and to manage that risk responsibly. It's not happening much.

There is a sense of urgency everywhere in the IT industry, bordering on panic or hysteria. The panic is based on hype, overselling from vendors and analysts, and hysteria induced by rapid tech change. It is good for selling software, services, and analysts. Not so good for the organisations that rush into bad decisions.

Slow Business is emerging all around. There is this debate on the Economist website (which prompted me to get off my butt and finish this), where we hear

Google—whose chairman, Eric Schmidt, famously said, “We don’t have a two year-plan. We (only) have a next week plan.”—now offers “mindfulness development” classes to all its employees so they can cultivate patience over speed and favour reflection over reactivity at work...
C-level executives from Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are speaking about the importance of… slowing down, at the Wisdom 2.0 summit in San Francisco. This sold-out annual conference, in which the Who’s who’s Who who of the tech industry mingle with Buddhist meditation gurus, extolls the virtues of “mindfulness” and “introspection” and the importance of finding meaning in our technology-dominated, rapid-paced lives.

Businesses are starting to get it: slow works. Warren Buffett famously described his investing strategy as "lethargy bordering on sloth". Warren was a billion dollars up for the day, on the day I wrote this, so I think he is worth listening to. We as a society are fixated with the fast times and fast money of the high-tech poster-child companies. As we have already seen, these "fizzy" tech companies are starting to slow down. But much of the rest of society never sped up to the same degree in the first place. The investment and banking sectors did, and brought us the Global Financial Crisis as a result. Read Boomerang: the Meltdown Tour as an entertaining chronicle of the pinnacles of stupidity in the GFC (and more chillingly about how it's not over yet).

Retailing and publishing have been revolutionised by online selling, true. But when you look at the manufacturing sector, many of the ones who rushed into e-commerce, or to outsource overseas, are regretting it now while many companies just keep making good stuff and making a living. Service industries, tradespeople, small businesses in their millions watch all the fuss with bemusement, or they waste a month's profits on a bad website they don't need. Many of you reading this need to recalibrate: if you spend all your days talking to Fortune 1000 companies (or Silicon Valley start-ups) you are going to get a "Swiss bank account" view of the world. Why do you think IT companies like BMC and Blackberry are privatising? To try to get off the quarterly-reporting merry-go-round and have time to think long-term.

More links about Slow Business here.

Here in IT we are bombarded by new technologies, bigger and better technologies, software upgrades - it rains change amongst the IT things. With this comes an expectation of new behaviours, new cultures, new practices: e.g. BYOD, DevOps, Agile...

There is a rising hysteria in IT. Pundits clamour for our attention forecasting revolution and disaster and singularities. We are told we must {{insert latest fad here}} or die. Apparently we are dinosaurs, doomed by technology asteroids.

Too many people are imposing their personal technology experience onto expectations of corporate IT. Just because you can load yourself down with trinkets and geegaws,; just because you can patch together a personal virtual environment in (un-valued) days; just because the consumer tech industry panders to your every whim unconstrained by issues like ROI; just because you live in a tech nirvana right now... none of this should not colour your views of how corporate IT works. They bear as much resemblance to each other as your backyard lawn does to the grain-farming industry.

Let's not project our personal consumer experience onto business, and let's not treat every organisation as if it were in a commodity consumer retail market. It seems to me IT is becoming very unsophisticated in our understanding of business priorities, strategies and risks. Business is not the same as selling on the street, unless you sell on the street.

ImageAlso, in IT we often lack proper perspective because we live too deep in our technology silo and our personal geekdom. I've said before that talk of "transformational technologies" is a small view, lacking proper perspective of all aspects of the organisation.

The change madness is getting worse with every passing year. The demands for change being placed on corporate IT are plain ridiculous. As a consequence we are breaking IT. In pursuit of absurd project commitments we are eating ourselves.

And the hysteria reaches fever pitch as people extrapolate trends into the future linearly or worse still exponentially. This is such bad scientific thinking that it shouldn't be worthy of debate, but the power of critical thought is a scarce resource these days because nobody has time to think any more. (A few of you were at Pink13 in Las Vegas. I hope you listened, really listened to Neil Tyson and Matt Ridley, two candles of reason in a demon-haunted world)

This frantic scramble for an ever-accelerating rate of change runs smack into two unyielding realities:

1) Contemporary corporate IT is a huge edifice, a fragile house of cards that nevertheless runs the business. What tiny start-ups blowing other people's money can achieve, or web developers deliver by slapping lipstick on the corporate pig, is only mildly interesting in the big-iron worlds where I work. In legacy systems we must take care, proceed with caution. How many ERP rollouts do we need in order to prove that.

2) You can change hardware in seconds, software in days, processes in weeks. But people and cultures change at a human rate of change, and all the leaping and screaming - and cool toys - in the world aren't gong to accelerate that pace much. In fact the harder you push the more the culture pushes back, like a water buffalo. Put another way, you can whip the horse all you want but it has a top speed.

No, the answer is NOT to radically change the way the whole IT industry works, or your IT organisation works, or even to change how you personally work. You won't. You can't. It doesn't. You can no more ask for 30 hours in a day as a solution to the problem. individuals change in months or years. Organisations change in years. Communities change in decades, if not generations (and no sonny i have no plans to retire for 20 years yet).

Frankly, this hysteria is adolescent, if not downright infantile. I've said it before:

IT Management is 1% innovation and 99% perspiration. Innovation is not our day job. For the small number of IT people who are in charge of conceptualising new services or setting architectural directions, then [change] is very exciting. In some cases it is even relevant to them.
For the rest of you, get back to work and stop looking over on that far horizon just because it looks cool - we have a business to run.
You're an undisciplined rabble of kids who run out the gate to dance shrieking around anything shiny or noisy that comes along the road. If [change] is coming to us, the CIO and the architects and the designers will let us know soon enough. If you wanted to play with the cool toys you should have studied harder in school.

IT exists to protect and serve. There seems to be this expectation that IT exists only to create new IT in response to the demands of the business. It's not true.

The Finance department doesn't exist solely to find the money for whatever the business needs ("serve"). The Finance department also exists to look after the health and safety of the organisation's wealth ("protect"). Sometimes the Finance department will resist new initiatives simply because the organisation can't afford them. This then becomes a decision escalated to the Executive or the governors (the Board) to decide whether to proceed against the advice of the CFO who is protecting the organisation.

In exactly the same way, the Information Technology department exists to protect the IT interests of the owners of the organisation whilst also serving IT's customers and users. The two don't always align. IT is entrusted with custody - protection - of the organisation's IT assets. These include:
- the information itself: its confidentiality, integrity and availability
- the investment in existing systems to manage, support and use that information (people, - processes, hardware, software, connectivity, suppliers...)
- the capability to deploy new or changed systems: architecture, analysis, design, development, deployment

With the idea of Slow IT, I'm saying can we all just calm down a bit and let a little reason, considered reflection, and - *gasp* - actual testing and proof trickle into our IT strategy and planning. We need to understand how fast individuals can absorb change, and just as importantly how fast organisations can change their strategy, structure, process, and practices.

Most of all we must deal with the risks. Part of the dizzy rush for change in recent decades has been fueled by an abdication of responsibility for risk, disguised as mitigation of risk. What really goes on is that risks are noted, recorded, and somehow "managed", then ignored. The finance industry has proved that you can't hedge risk, not for ever and certainly not on a systemic scale. Ask the insurance companies about Japan or Christchurch, and how well the risk management worked there. Managing risk does not make higher risk safer. It makes us safer, period. Increased safety isn't a reason for Formula One drivers to drive faster - it is a reason for less of them to die. (Thanks @aalem for that analogy)

I'm not resistant to change. I'm not saying don't change. Two important books about such change have come out recently, The Phoenix Project and The Quantum Age of IT. Both of them are fueling the fire rather than cooling it, but both have important things to say. What I'm saying is that we - the IT sector, our customers, and our governors - need to be realistic about human rates of change, and cognisant of the risks of excessive rates of change. Tweet this.

“Speed is a good servant but a bad master” - Adrian Wooldridge, The Economist

See also Meet In The Middle: Slow IT and Fast IT. A book is in the making.

[We excessively] "concentrate on the destinations towards which change carries us, rather than the speed of the journey... The rate of change has implications quite apart form, and sometimes more important than, the directions of change... Any attempt to define the 'content' of change must include the consequences of pace itself as part of that content." - Alvin Toffler, Future Shock

This is nothing but an unstructured rant at this stage, but I want to get it out there, stimulate some discussion, instead of procrastinating as I have done with some ideas in the past. I have a feeling Slow IT may be another of my themes for 2013.

[from comments below:]
I'm not resistant to change. I'm not saying don't change.

I'm saying there is a real limit to how fast humans can change: how fast we can change our behaviours, our attitudes, our processes, our systems. We need to accept that the technology is changing faster than society, our IT sector, our organisations, our teams, ourselves can change.

I'm saying there is a social and business backlash already to the pace of change. We're standing in the ruins of an economy that embraced fast change.

I'm saying there are real risks to the pace of change, and we currently live in a culture that thinks writing risks down means you can then ignore them, or that if you can't ignore them you can always hedge them somehow.

We have to slow down a bit. perhaps "Slow IT" is the wrong name but it was catchy. I'm not saying go slooooow. We've somehow sustained a pretty impressive pace for decades. But clearly it can't go much faster, if at all, and all these demands that it must go faster are plain silly. It just can't. There's bits falling off, people burning out, smoking shells of projects everywhere.

I'm not saying stop, but I am saying ease off a little, calm down, stop panicking, stop this desperate headlong rush. You are right Simon that mindfulness is a key element: we all need time to think. Let the world keep up.

Even Gartner agree about Slow IT. For them it is "Two Speed IT"

"How Technology Killed the Future", Douglas Rushkoff.

"Release Cycles and Why We Are Chasing Our Tails? ... constantly running after the technology"

InfoWorld talked about Slow IT, but it is more a manifesto for head-in-the-sand tech misanthropy - a battle cry of the world's Dilbertesque Wallys - than a call to address the issues.

See also:
Slow Business
The mad competitive scramble
Don't confuse your personal digital experience with business
Talk of IT innovation is the last gasp of the IT cowboys

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