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Why IT frameworks aren't working—and how to fix them

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Doug Tedder, Principal Consultant, Tedder Consulting LLC

Do IT frameworks such as ITIL have a place in today's digital world, where the demand for speed and responsiveness dominates the thinking within IT?

Yes, IT frameworks continue to be relevant. But many IT pros struggle with their use because they don't take the time to think about what needs to be done—and how a framework can help. A little critical thinking can go a long way.

The "pets and cattle" infrastructure concept has become popular within the DevOps community. Joaquin Menchaca, a senior DevOps engineer, provides a good summary of the concept. In the pets service model, each pet server is given a name. Each is "unique, lovingly hand-raised, and cared for, and when they get sick, you nurse them back to health," Menchaca explained. You scale these up by making them bigger, and when they are unavailable, everyone notices.

In the cattle service model, the servers are given identification numbers such as web-01, web-02, web-03, web-04, and web-05, much the same as farmers tag the ear of each cow with a unique number. Each server is "almost identical to each other" and "when one gets sick, you replace it with another one." You scale these by creating more of them, and when one is unavailable, no one notices.

Here are the challenges—and promise—of IT frameworks such as ITIL in cattle service model environments.

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The value of an IT framework

The British statistician George Box once said, "All models are wrong. Some models are useful." This sentiment also applies to IT frameworks: They're all wrong. I've yet to encounter a framework that answers every question for every possible situation. 

A framework by itself has no value. It's what you do with a framework that can lead an IT organization to deliver value for both itself and the business it serves. And that is what makes IT frameworks useful.

The adoption of an IT framework can help an organization take a holistic approach to the governance and use of its computing resources. Even with the emergence of new technologies, frameworks can have significant influence. Either tried-and-true frameworks are being adopted to manage that emerging technology, or the disdain of a framework is used as a basis for managing that emerging technology differently.

The undercurrent of initiatives such as digital transformation, moving IT spend from capex to opex, and working to become nimbler and more responsive is moving the management of computing resources outside of the organization that relies on and consumes those resources. But as the management of computing resources moves further and further away from the organizations relying on those resources, the opportunities for an organization's internal IT resources to keep those management skills sharp become fewer and fewer.

Many IT organizations are ceding the responsibility of managing computing resources but are not considering how to manage the resultant outcomes from the use of those resources. Leveraging the guidance of a framework can help ensure that both the external provider and the IT organization are providing the outcomes demanded by the business.

The problems with IT frameworks

The use of IT frameworks often presents challenges.

The first issue is what I would call "framework religion." One doesn’t have to look too far to find the deeply philosophical arguments about frameworks. Frankly, in my experience, all frameworks are equally good, but all are flawed. Nonetheless, many people consider one framework or another to be gospel, rather than just something to provide guidance, as was intended.

Thinking of a framework as gospel ultimately diverts the attention of many in IT from delivering business value to implementing the framework.

Think about the business first

The biggest challenge organizations adopting IT frameworks face is that they are focused on IT. Most framework adopters have taken an inside-out approach to delivering IT products and services to the business. As a result, frameworks were adopted only by IT, with little or no involvement or support from leadership or colleagues from elsewhere in the organization.

The better approach is to first consider business needs and objectives and then adopt—and adapt—a framework.

In many cases, frameworks were implemented as a means of control, not as a means of enablement. Frameworks were viewed as a way to erect a fence around the computing environment—perhaps trying to keep the "pets" safe. 

Compounding the situation, many IT organizations attempted to implement only the parts of a framework that suited them, without considering the impact on their overall system.

When the focus is on the adoption of a framework, rather than on delivering business value, the focus is on the wrong place. But many IT organizations went down or are on this path, and try to force everything into a framework.

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Assess IT frameworks in your company's context

Regardless of the "how," IT organizations must deliver services to the business they serve. And in today's always-on, always-connected world, IT must be nimbler and more responsive to business demand. Frameworks allow IT to accomplish these goals, while at the same time providing the appropriate levels of stability, reliability, and security.

Frameworks can work, but only if people think about what needs to be done, and how the appropriate use of one or more frameworks could help. 

Many in IT don't take the time to think, especially when it comes to how to best leverage frameworks within their organizations. Rather than evaluating frameworks for themselves, they base their opinion only on what someone else has said, or on their perception from an experience they may have had somewhere else. They don't take the time to explore frameworks in the existing business and technical context.

Critical thinking counts

This type of critical thinking is important to ensure delivery of outcomes and value today, and to identify improvements and innovation for tomorrow. 

If an IT organization is to remain relevant to the larger organization it serves, the people within that IT organization must be able to take a step back and think as well as do.

Take the time to explore various IT frameworks before arbitrarily dismissing them. It's not about just blindly doing what a framework describes; consider how IT can reliably and consistently respond to business demands in a balanced way. This is how IT frameworks can work for you. It just takes a little more thought.

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