Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Response to DSS Governance

Every couple of years or so, you get one of those rare students in a class - one who actually teaches you something about the topic. Bruce Fowler was one of those students in a Data Warehousing course that I taught earlier this year. He's a data warehouse manager for a resource management company, and so has an interest in DW management and governance issues.

He posted a response to the DSS Governance post I put up recently, but due to the new comments system that Peter's been playing around with, it didn't come through. It was substantive enough, and included some diagrams, that I thought it reasonable to post (with Bruce's permission!) his comments as a separate entry. All images in (and linked to by) this entry are Copyright © 2007 Bruce Fowler

The comparison of IT, railroads and power as "infrastructure technologies" - sharing characteristics of competitive advantage, ubiquity and finally commoditisation (followed by a loss of strategic benefit and value) is a fairly long bow. It is important to remember that the catalyst for the demise of rail was not its cost or availability (at least not directly), it was the advent of more cost effective and time efficient technological alternatives (combustion engines, aeroplanes). I am not sure I would support the contention that the commoditisation of a technology has any specific correlation to the technology’s loss of strategic initiative or competitive advantage.

Railway lines continue to provide cost effective and logistically efficient means of transporting large volumes of material across the country (provided the infrastructure exists and the alternative means remain less cost effective and time efficient), and are being used in new and innovative ways to supplement conventional income streams for logistics organisations through integrated fibre networks. Power companies continue to explore delivery of new products and services over existing infrastructure (i.e. broadband over powerlines), and are currently reinventing themselves in biofuels space to enable delivery of “green” energy to a more environmentally conscious market. Combustion engines are being redesigned to be more fuel efficient and “environmentally friendly”.

The delivery platforms have been around for some time and form part of our everyday lives – their use is evolving in new and innovative ways. IT – perhaps more than any other technology platform – has the capacity to continue to be adapted and evolved to meet the ever-changing demands of its user base. Commodity? Yes. Does it matter? Of course it does.

Back on topic …

I suspect there is a significant difference in the structure, objectives and necessities of Corporate Governance and IT Governance; and of the relationship between the two in comparison to the same for DW/DSS Governance. Even then, there are perhaps different factors that need to be considered from the perspective of DW Governance versus DSS Governance, and their respective relationships with IT Governance.

Consider the basis for the introduction of Corporate Governance – a means of managing the seemingly inevitable consequences of the centralisation of power and decision making authority (Husted, 1999); then consider the basis for the introduction of IT Governance – the patterns of authority for the significant IT activities of an organisation including IT Infrastructure, IT Use and IT Project Management. In simplistic terms, the former focuses on risk mitigation, the latter on efficiency and effectiveness.

Over time, the use of Corporate Governance models as a direct risk mitigation strategy has given way to an army of formalised standards, auditing and reporting obligations – spanning multiple levels of business, including technology operations – administered by committees through levels of delegation of authority. The line between Corporate Governance and IT Governance has blurred, and the need to maintain alignment of IT (infrastructure, use and project management) with the organisations mission objectives is now forefront in the minds of most informed corporate executives. This alignment recognises that the critical strategic importance of IT to successful business operation.

Get it right, and IT can (at a minimum) provide a stable platform from which other strategic endeavours can be launched. Get it wrong, and a failed IT system or project can (in the best of cases) reduce your business efficiency or effectiveness, or (in the most severe of circumstances) end your business (someone say ERP?).

A pencil is a commodity. IT is a tool that can be used to create competitive business advantage, or as easily be misused resulting in catastrophic business or process failure.

I find myself off topic again …

The evolution of DW Governance arrangements depends on the confluence of many factors that interact with one another in a number of complex ways (Sambamurthy and Zmud, 1999). The key factors, their interactions and dependencies are included below.

Given the nature of the relationships identified below, perhaps we could identify the interactions has a loosely coupled hierarchy: with each child exhibiting some characteristics of its parent, and the will and initiative to move around (and sometimes break out of) the boundaries defined by the ever-watchful parent (who will evolve and adapt their boundaries to meet the growing needs and demands of the child, but have the foresight and capacity to bring the child back into line if needs be).

Thanks Bruce. Generally, I vigorously agree with everything you've written here. If you would like a copy of Bruce's original diagrams, drop me a line and I'll pass on the request.

Monday, December 10, 2007

DSS Governance

In the last post, I mentioned I had been looking at the issue of governance and DSS. In fact, this is something I've been thinking about since a student asked in a lecture if there was anything on data warehouse governance a couple of years ago, and I've just written a paper for the bi-annual conference for the academic DSS community, IFIP Working Group 8.3.

The paper is currently under review, so I won't post it here yet (I'll put up a link when it's gone through that process), but I thought I'd put the basic argument out there for people to comment on, since it's all still conceptual at this stage.

IT governance is an important topic - on the one hand corporate governance is a big thing; and on the other, we've got Nicholas Carr telling us that IT is not a strategic advantage for organisations. The IT industry needs to ensure that we're managing an important corporate resource effectively.

As a significant chunk of the IT industry DSS (ie. BI) is all a part of IT governance. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of academic work that talks about how to do this effectively for DSS (there's a bit on data warehousing, but that's it).

The argument I make in the paper is based on the idea that DSS is different to other kinds of IT in two ways:

  1. DSS are chaotic systems. They evolve. They can and should evolve quickly. If they don't evolve, then there's something wrong: learning isn't taking place, and the system isn't doing what it's supposed to: provide support with semi- or un-structured decision-making. Sure, evolutionary development is used to build all kinds of systems, but there is usually some end-point in mind where the system becomes stable (relatively). This isn't the case for DSS.
  2. DSS are subversive systems. They're designed to deal with strategic decisions (a corollary of being built for semi- and un-structured decisions). Their use deliberately changes some aspect of an organisation's structure (not the physical structure, but the organisation's strategic direction, policies, values, procedures, work-flows, etc.). Other systems may have this effect too, but often it's not deliberate. With DSS it's intentional - part of it's raison d'etre.

IT governance is largely about how to control IT resources, enforce standards, and manage changes in a methodical fashion. It's based on a mindset of stability and prediction. Although there's been a lot written on IT governance (check out Weill & Ross's excellent book on IT governance), and a lot of it focuses on the appropriate approach for given organisational types (eg. centralised versus decentralised management cultures), there's nothing I've seen that actually takes characteristics of the technology into account. My assertion in the paper is that the underlying assumptions of a given governance approach should be consistent with the underlying assumptions embedded in the technology being governed.

Bureaucratic approaches that are appropriate for managing technologies like transaction-processing systems - steering committees, IT councils, service level agreements, etc - are inappropriate for chaotic systems. Enforcement of an organisational structure on the operation of a technology is inappropriate for a technology designed to question and change that same structure. Excessive control can (and has, we've seen it) stifle and eventually kill a DSS project.

The conclusion that I come to is that for DSS to thrive, the developers and users need the autonomy to play around with the system's design and functionality without going through multiple layers of bureaucracy. DSS should operate, therefore, in a kind of 'governance sandbox', where the DSS team are trusted to do the right thing as they see it. This kind of approach needs some clear boundaries however, including clear goals and objectives, and what constitutes overstepping the mark. This in turn requires a pre-existing, well planned general IT governance strategy.

Anyway, those are my current thoughts. Feel free to shoot through any comments. A couple of issues spring to mind, such as how do different kinds of DSS technologies differ in their governance requirements - eg. data warehouses versus dashboards versus small-scale throwaway spreadsheets. What specific mechanisms work for DSS governance inside the 'sandbox'? How much scope should DSS developers and users have? All food for future research...