IT Hard Problems

the current IT hard problems are not well-defined

I’ve thought a lot lately about the hard problems in IT.   There was a time that an ERP upgrade was considered about the hardest thing an organization could undertake and certainly those involve a lot of work and time and cost.   ERP upgrades also have a lot of risk associated with them and we’ve heard the stories of blown conversions, delayed conversions, cost overrun conversions and even blown quarters at companies that are blamed on the conversion of an ERP environment.

ERP upgrades and similar large-scale IT projects are certainly hard and require a lot of focus and attention to execute those moves successfully.  However, they are mostly a very advanced project management project.  By that I mean there is a starting point, there are many big and small milestones in between and there is an ending point.  Furthermore, there is a specific set of outcomes from the effort that are either met or not.   In short, it is a well-defined goal that has an end point.  Yes it might take 18 months and 300 people and $15M in costs to complete, but they are rather well-defined.

I think the hard problems today are not well-defined, they don’t have end points and they may not have clear goals.   I wrote earlier about the challenges of managing software licenses and if I expand that into full asset management, vendor management and software license management, then this is an area that is hard to define, hard to keep under control and has changing rules (by vendors).   It is easy to lose track of some parts of our hardware stack as changes take place over multiple locations across the years.   Throw in some M&A activity and it gets worse.   Vendors like to change the way they count licenses over time and they like to change their licensing strategies and policies over time.   In short, this is a very hard area to keep in control.

Security and protecting a companies IP is another example of a hard problem.   The aim is to protect the enterprise and its IP, and while you may think you are doing it well you can’t be totally sure.   You have to keep ahead of organized and disorganized threats, you have to support changing end-point platforms, you have to deal with social threats and just plain carelessness.     You almost can’t spend enough in this area.  The entire universe of security threats is very, very large.

A third area is collaboration related tools and methods.   Today, half the software vendors on the planet are jockeying for leadership in collaboration tool sets and methods.   An IT shop can create a complicated Venn diagram of the overlap between their different tool sets.   Wrong bets can lead a company in a direction that doesn’t end well and might result in expensive conversions later.  And it is hard to decide which direction to go and of course, there are proponents of each solution inside your own company.   I think that Collaboration is one of the keys to an organizations success going forward as the what got us here won’t get us there.    However, it is hard to figure out the road ahead.

The last hard problem I’d mention is around governance of IT and management of trusted agents in the IT setting.   In many recent discussions, I’ve been re-learning how hard it is to solve segregation of duties challenges, authorization/re-authorization/review of trusted agents, and most importantly logging of transactions for trusted agents.   These are not easy problems to solve in a large-scale IT shop.   These are also problems that are hard to define in some cases and you have to think from the perspective of a threat to the Enterprise, much like in the security area.

These ‘hard problems’ are characterized by not being well-defined, having no end point, having changing conditions or constraints and seem to be very complex.   These are the hard problems in IT these days and I think they are harder now than they were 5 years ago.   We need our some of our best people working in these areas.

I told someone recently I’d rather gnaw off my arm rather than do another ERP upgrade.   I’m rethinking my preferences.

11 thoughts on “IT Hard Problems”

  1. Great post. One of the tools I’ve used that helps in these situations is to visualize the “end-goal” or the “outcome” for the problem at hand. Things tend to fall in place once we are able to do this.

    1. Changanti, yes I agree that you need to picture an outcome and work in that direction. However, these are sometimes tough to define too. The outcome on protecting a companies IP is well understood. How to get there or actually protecting it effectively is the challenge.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I think you have well emphasized the difference and challenge in perspectives between those that are project driven and those that are services driven. It’s why I feel for people who are so bent on getting ITIL in place, and not bent on getting services in place. PMO, ITIL, Tools, are all there for the delivery of services. In 1998-2000 I was involved in an ERP project. Everyone was focused on rolling out the ERP application, not SKU management, PO delivery, Inventory management, etc… The ERP was in place to provide services to the business. The focus on delivering the tool however, skewed our perspective of customer input. We didn’t listen to what they wanted the service to look like, and thus experienced at the end of the day a highly successful project deployment of a highly unsuccessful business service. Services don’t have start and ends. They exist and are either improved or impeded.

    1. Matt,
      Good point. We’ve got to focus on the real end result and not focus on installing a tool or a widget or a whatever.

      Thanks for stopping by.


  3. I like your list and I support your notion of having people work on those areas specifically.

    One thing I will take exception to is that just making those assignments and reaching a resolution is not enough. We have to go *beyond* and look for how to better ways of dealing with “problems” like these.

    It can be done, but it’s not something that can be done on an ad hoc basis, if long-term gains are expected. It must be approached from a systematic perspective and be addressed as a core part of how your organization does business.

    On a cross-functional basis, developing your people to lead and giving them good problem management skills is the best place to start. With those two as foundational elements, there’s not a lot that can stand in your way.


  4. Kengon,
    I agree that a systematic, thoughtful approach to each of these kinds of problems is necessary. It can’t be ‘delegated’ to someone and assume it is solved. These are hard problems that will take time, lots of conversations, maybe some better tools and a real systematic approach in order to improve these areas. Plus there will continue to be new lessons learned along the way.

    Thanks for stopping by,


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