Is IT Like Gardening?

*Editor's Note: This is a book excerpt from "The Technology Garden: Cultivating Sustainable IT-Business Alignment," by Jon Collins, Neil Macehiter, Dale Vile and Neil Ward-Dutton and published by Wiley and Sons. Purchase the book here.


When Nicholas Carr posited "IT doesn't matter" in 2003, he was making the point that current technologies are commoditising and therefore available to all. While this might be true, it is dependent on everything working correctly. There is another side to IT however; in many organisations, IT is more a bottleneck than a strategic tool, as layer upon layer of complex legacy has resulted in environments that restrict, rather than enable business activities. This leads to the question - if IT isn't actually helping the business, what exactly is it there for?

While the 'what' of IT may be a commodity, the 'how' of it, specifically how it supports and sustains business activities and functions, absolutely is not. The killer is that business value can only come through the orchestration of whole ecosystems of technologies and service providers. As these become more and more complex, the focus needs to move away from the "what" and towards the "how".

It is this emphasis, towards a sustainable model for technology delivery that considers the whole ecosystem of business and IT, and which works across the value chain incorporating technology suppliers, systems integrators, outsourcing and service provision, that led us to the central themes for our new book. Traditionally, technology funding separates projects from maintenance by an iron curtain: once a project is complete, there is little consideration how to fund necessary enhancements to ensure it delivers the necessary value. The assumption is that, once complete, deployed technologies will need only minor tinkering.

This assumption is fundamentally flawed. There has been much talk in technology circles about considering large scale technology projects is the same way as construction projects - building bridges or cathedrals, for example. While there is plenty to be gained from such parallels, the two paradigms diverge quite fundamentally once the project is complete. Apart from the ongoing checks that all is in order and the occasional coat of paint, a bridge is fixed in time as a monument to its builders, whereas for IT projects, the journey is only just beginning.

Like, for example, a garden. Gardens of all sizes benefit from being given due consideration at the outset, then being planned, architected and laid out as though for all time. You don't have to be a gardener however, to know that things will start to change from day one - individual plants will grow and evolve of their own accord, even as they thrive and fall back with the seasons. Gardening is about so much more than just digging the ground and planting the seeds: it's an ongoing, sustainable process of nurturing and pruning, allowing things to grow and cutting them, all the while ensuring that they continue to meet their central purpose - to carry fruit, provide a dash of colour or offer an attachment point for the hammock.

If the goal is sustainability, we believe there is as much to be gained by considering technology delivery as a garden: in doing so, we are quire deliberately setting our stall apart from the builders of cathedrals and bridges. Our theme is sustainable alignment between business and IT, and this needs more than just the project management skills or architectural focus that we can learn from construction projects. In addition we need to maintain excellent relationships with strategic suppliers, to focus constantly on the relationship between IT and business (not just at project kick-off) and to consider the whole ecosystem as a portfolio of value-adding capabilities, not just a set of discrete systems.

So, what do we actually mean by alignment, or by adding value to the business? In practice, we see three key focuses, namely improving operational business efficiency and effectiveness, managing risk and compliance, and supporting innovation. Each brings the same challenges - not least to balance investments to deliver the right mix of short-term and longer-term paybacks. Sustainability is indeed the key: in our research for the book "The Technology Garden," we learned a great deal talking to business executives, CIOs and senior IT management and front line technologists, about how organisations can successfully achieve and sustain alignment between IT and the business.

What we ended up with could colloquially be considered "the six habits of highly effective IT." Some will come as no surprise - the need for good IT governance, for example, or the effective practice of enterprise architecture. Others, like those mentioned earlier, can perhaps be seen as common sense - but only in hindsight. The difficulties come in knowing where to start, so we incorporate a roadmap for organisations that want to start down the track, together with an assessment model to help organisations understand where they are starting.

IT is not going to get any simpler: indeed it will become anything but, as applications become ever more distributed through use of service oriented architecture, as infrastructure benefits from virtualisation technologies and as access mechanisms become ever more mobile. However, we believe that the principles we espouse are timeless. IT matters a great deal to many companies, and as complexity grows, the need for principles such as those we espouse in The Technology Garden will only grow in importance.


About the Authors

Neil Macehiter is a co-founder of and Research Director at Macehiter Ward-Dutton, a specialist IT advisory firm which focuses exclusively on issues concerning IT-business alignment – including IT architecture, integration, management, organisation and culture. Neil specialises in enterprise architecture/SOA, web services, virtualisation and identity management. Immediately prior to forming Macehiter Ward-Dutton, he was Ovum’s Research Director for enterprise architecture topics, leading a team of analysts covering software development, deployment and management issues. Before that he spent fourteen years in a range of consulting and sales support roles for a number of the largest IT suppliers, including Oracle and Sun Microsystems, and latterly in product and corporate strategy for a number of European start-ups, including Autonomy and Zeus Technology. Neil has acted as an advisor to leading vendors, including IBM, Oracle, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems; and to large IT user organisations, including the Australian Government’s Centrelink department, the Netherlands’ Government’s Belastingdienst agency, The UK Government’s Department of Work and Pensions and The Government of Hong Kong. Neil is a regular speaker at conferences throughout Europe and is regularly quoted in mainstream and IT specialist media, including the BBC, Computer Weekly, The FT, The Times and IT Week. Neil earned an MA in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University in 1985.

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Neil Ward-Dutton is Research Director at Macehiter Ward-Dutton, a specialist IT advisory firm which focuses exclusively on issues concerning IT-business alignment - including IT architecture, integration, management, organisation and culture. Neil is an accomplished and experienced IT industry analyst and public speaker. He advises clients on technology and management issues relating to enterprise architecture, application development, business integration, process management and application platforms. Neil has acted as an advisor to leading vendors, including IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, BEA, Hewlett-Packard, SAP, and Borland; and to large IT user organizations - particularly in financial services, government and telecommunications sectors.

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Jon Collins is a Principal Analyst at Macehiter Ward-Dutton, a specialist IT advisory firm which focuses exclusively on issues concerning IT-business alignment – including IT architecture, integration, management, organisation and culture. He has an end-user background, having worked as an IT consultant, network manager and software engineer for companies such as Admiral Management Services Ltd, Alcatel and Philips Electronics. Jon’s areas of expertise include business service management, IT security, infrastructure management, IT architecture and application development. Jon has worked as an industry analyst for over 6 years for companies including Quocirca, Bloor Research and IDC. He has acted as an advisor to leading vendors including Cisco, EMC, IBM and Microsoft; and to large IT user organisations in the Government, Telecommunications and Financial Services sectors.

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About Macehiter Ward-Dutton

Macehiter Ward-Dutton is a specialist IT advisory firm which combines industry research and analysis with tailored consulting services, and is focused exclusively on issues surrounding IT-business alignment.

The company was formed in February 2005 by two top-level analysts formerly of Ovum: Neil Ward-Dutton and Neil Macehiter.