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IT is Really Slow

May 19, 2012

I was just talking to a fellow who had retired from government.  I told him that I had been with the IT department at a university.  His first response was to laugh and say that their IT department was really slow.  I’ve heard that before.  It seems to be a common impression within most organizations.  What are the reasons for this?  I’m going to provide a simplified explanation, one that might offend IP professionals.

At the heart, it’s because the IT department and the IT user want different things.  The IT department builds a system, one that’s integrated, comprehensive, and stable.  The user, on the other hand, wants a computer like they have at home.  They want what they see advertized, what everybody else has.  This is a fundamental conflict.

A system, first of all, is built from a series of components, both hardware and software.  The hardware might be desktop computers, laptop computers, mobile devices, printers, or servers, as a few examples.  Software components might be operating systems, web browsers, e-mail readers, word processors, or document files, to name a few.

Components are tied together by standards, of which there are three main types.  These are Microsoft standards, Apple standards, and open standards.  They are also generally incompatible with each other, forcing the IT department to make a choice.

IT has another conflict, one between integration and stability on one hand and innovation on the other.  New components may be very attractive and appealing, but may not follow the chosen standard.  They may also be loss leaders that require other costly components to make a complete system.  Should the IT department refuse to consider new components even though their users want them?  How long can they continue to do this?

In IT, change proceeds by revolution.  The existing system becomes obsolete, unable to accomodate new components.  Management eventually chooses a new standard, requiring that the whole system be replaced.  The result, first of all, is disruption, with user annoyance, conversion time, and instability.  Ultimately, there is a gain in some functions and a loss in others, but the system is once again a modern one.

Two of the standards mentioned above are proprietary standards, often called a walled garden these days.  These generally bring higher costs, in terms of hardware and software purchase and licences.  They also bring a fully-integrated system, with many functions.  The disadvantage is a lack of choice, so that users are limited to components and functions that are included with the system.

The other is an open standard.  These are generally free, but requre more support staff to integrate a wide range of components.  Even then, integration will be incomplete because many of the components have different origins, and because of limitations within the open standards themselves.  They do permit a great degree of user choice.  There are dozens of e-mail readers that follow open standards, for example.

Here we have another fundamental conflict.

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