Tetris management

Managing the IS infrastructure in a changing environment

Information systems management has been seen as the management of infrastructure: The challenge of providing stable technological platforms when the users of the technology demand more functionality and compatibility with all the latest tools. IS managers have tended to respond to the changing technological landscape by trying to limit the users' choice. This was fairly easy to do in the old mainframe world, where the IS organization controlled the use of the information systems by controlling physical access to them. Aside from putting IS in the awkward position of limiting the use of the technology rather than encouraging it, this situation leads IS to adopt an attitude of seeing control procedures as implemented in technology only, and technological platforms where this control could be done as per definition outside the IS department's domain.

 In a distributed environment, the IS organization's challenge lies not in controlling the technology, but rather in managing the evolution of the whole infrastructure so that it is matched to the users' demand for it. Controlling access won't work--the users can go out and buy their own machines, not to mention get their own stuff over the Internet, where a marginally better moustrap is literally a mouseclick away (no pun intended). In this situation, IS needs to maintain tight links to the user community, especially to the more advanced users, and try to anticipate rather than respond to users' needs. If the main technology choices are not made preemptively the users will choose platforms themselves, and invest time and resources in them, and then not be willing to change to a common platform when IS has finally pondered and taken a consensus decision. This implies that infrastructure has to be designed with room to "stretch" so that enterprising users can experiment and implement their designs without having to acquire technology that compromises the integration of the infrastructure.

Tetris fig.An interesting metaphor for this process can be found by looking at the popular PC game Tetris. In this game, the player collects points by forming layers out of irregularly shaped blocks falling from above. The blocks can fit into each other, but have to be modified a bit, usually by quickly turning the piece around before it reaches the blocks at the bottom. As soon as a whole layer is completed, it collapses and disappears from view. If a layer is not completed, it remains as a problem, giving the player less time and room to position the new falling blocks into the next layer. The analogy to IS management is apparent: The falling blocks represent new technologies or uses of technologies continually facing the IS department. The completed layers represent old and well understood technologies such as mainframes.

 The CIO who wants to stay in the game is well advised to pay less attention to the understood layers (by outsourcing them or delegating them to a small part of the organization) to give him- or herself time and room to deal with the new technologies, which will keep coming in an increasingly rapid stream.

Copyright © 1995 Espen Andersen
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