Tractors, nuclear powerplants and the bleeding edge

It is common for organisations to select a major technology leader (such as IBM or Oracle) and ride their product development cycle.  On client I worked for stated that they would:

“not follow a ‘best-of-breed’ approach, but rather select a major technology leader (IBM)… This means we explicitly seek and accept the “80% solution” rather than trying to optimise for each and every possible requirement. …Shortcomings will be made explicit in order that we can escalate with IBM, and influence their product strategy”.

Influence the IBM product strategy.  Good luck.  This one-size-fits all approach to technology maybe appealing on paper, and certainly has its benefits, you recruit a certain type of developer who has skills in that technology stack, if you are big enough your buying power may get a small voice in future releases that you will pay through the nose for.  But is it the best approach for the business?  A colleague, Stuart Hogg, takes three metaphors for enterprise IT.  The tractor, the nuclear power plant and the bleeding edge.

The tractor. This is the technology that keeps the lights on.  It is commodity software, it is the HR system, email, intranet etc.

Nuclear powerplant. This is the (generally bespoke) mission critical software that drives the business.

The Bleeding edge. This is the platform where you do cutting edge stuff, test and learn.  The ideas may one day be migrated to the nuclear powerplant.

All too many organisations get confused between these three models, loose sight of where they should be investing and plump for a one-size-fits-all technology to do all three.  Thus we see tractor technology trying to do the bleeding edge (Is it possible to innovate at speed with those Big Enterprise Solutions?)  By trying to combine utilitarian computing with strategic and speculative innovation, using the same skillsets, timeframes, processes and models, IT will never truly deliver the value for which it is capable.  Another ThoughtWorker, Ross Petit reiterates this point using a banking metaphor of utilitarian retail banking and speculative investment banking. He divides IT into “utility”, around 70 percent of IT investment (tractor and the nuclear powerplant); and “value add” the other (bleeding edge)30 percent.   Like other utilities such as electricity and water, ‘you don’t typically provide your own. You plug into a utility service that provides it for you’.  In IT that means SAAS and outsourcing and taking a strategic decision to differentiate between the different functions that IT performs.  He concludes:

Separating utility from value add will make IT a better performing part of the business. Because they’re comingled today, we project characteristics of “investment” into what are really utilities, and in the process we squandor capital. Conversely, and to ITs disadvantage, we project a great deal of “utility” into the things that are really investments, which impairs returns.

As a business function, IT has no definition on its own. It only has definition as part of a business, which means it needs to be run as a business. The risk tolerance, management, capabilities, retention risks, governance and business objectives of these two functions are vastly different. Indeed, the “business technologist” of value added IT needs a vastly different set of skills, capability, and aptitude than she or he generally has today. Clearly, they’re vastly different businesses, and should be directed accordingly.

Separating the utility from the value add allows us to reduce cost without jeopardizing accessibility to utility functions, and simultaneously build capability to maximize technology investments. Running them as entirely different business units, managed to a different set of hiring expectations, performance goals, incentive and reward systems, will equip each to better fulfill the objectives that maximize their business impact.

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1 Comment

  1. Bliki: UtilityVsStrategicDichotomy | Software Secret Weapons · Thursday, 23 September, 2010

    [...] Marc McNeil talks of projects as Tractors, nuclear power plants and the bleeding edge [...]

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