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Split decisions

Tricky political plays you don’t learn in school

The ripples of doubt from the dot-com debacle have spread to IT. Only a year ago the Internet was the solution to everything in computing. Got a mobile staff? Put ’em on the ‘Net. Want a business partner to share data? Scrap the EDI thing and learn XML. Want your family to schedule chores? Make a Web site with project management on it. Naturally when business on the ‘Net headed south, people started to look at all other things Internet and came away queasy about many commitments. Believe me, if the bubble of hype about wireless Internet deflates, the doubts will more than double.

However, let us not take leave of our hard-won knowledge. The new world of technology offered by the Internet/intranet combination needs exploration (if not exploitation). I have an example in mind that occurred just a few weeks ago…

On the other side of the desk is a colleague of mine. She’s a decision maker in a fairly large enterprise, an IT gal who handles some of the biggest projects. She’s darn competent and a good leader. Still we’re having a serious discussion about a dilemma that has her stymied and unable to make a critical decision. “Here’s the deal,” she says. “I have no idea what to do.”

Since I’ve got about 20 years on her, I’ll sometimes stand in as a guru, but it’s mostly a sham. She knows at least as much as I do about software development. Maybe I’ve got the edge in experience; or more accurately I’ve had my edge blunted so many times by experience that I’m able to warn her about rocks and hard places.

She’s got a classic problem in IT management. “My options are in-house, third party product, or outsource custom software. I almost never have all three as viable options, but there it is. It seems like the bigger the project, the more likely each option is valid.” She sighs demonstratively, and drops into her desk chair.

“Here’s the nitty-gritty. We need to build a customer service module that covers both the Web site and our in-store offices. With 90 stores, that’s a tall order. It would be easy–easier–if we were considering this as two systems, but the whole point of the project is to put the Web together with brick and mortar. What you need is two sets of expertise–Web and WAN–coupled with an integrator’s touch. Well let me tell you that’s hard to find. No, I take that back; there are several very big integrator companies like IBM and EDS that can tackle it…the problem is more subtle.”

She looked at me sidewise, and grimaced. “Let me venture a guess,” I said. “Politics.” She flashed a quick wry smile. “You got it. We have a new e-commerce division. The top two or three people there don’t get along with the store division people. Could be a little bit of a resource tussle, maybe a new kid on the block problem, or just plain competing interests. Whatever, they make projects like this very touchy. Everybody checks everything to make sure nobody is getting more than somebody else.” She laughs.

I laugh too, because we both know that moving resources around in big projects is vital. There’s always something that you hadn’t expected when you set up your Gantt chart. She continued, “It gets better. The store division used our in-house IT to build and maintain the infrastructure and most of the applications. Of course, the e-commerce division outsourced the infrastructure and bought third party software for most of the applications. Guess where each of them puts their oar into this project?”

I’m very fond of project leaders who can live in the real world, uncomfortable though it may be. “What’s the most important factor in this project–time, money, technical complexity, politics?” I ask.

She thinks a minute while swiveling in her chair. “Try this: The timeline is important–we can’t take more than a year–but it doesn’t drive the project. Money is an object, but this project is so important that within reason the money will be there. There are a lot of technical issues, especially in linking a hosted system with our internal servers. This looks like it should be a distributed application perhaps in the full sense of using the Internet and our intranet. Hmmm. If this distributed app is in the neutral ground between e-commerce and store IT–using resources from both–we may be able to dodge the politics.”

She grins. I grin and say, “Now you go to each of your three options and see which one can do the best job providing an IP-based distributed application. Sounds like the technical questions should come first. If you can present a good case for this approach, then both IT groups can find a reason to fall in line.”

I think if I hadn’t been there, she would have put her feet up on the desk and kicked back in her chair. As it was, she just said, “I love the Internet, don’t you?”

Editor at Large Nelson King also writes Pursuits monthly for ComputerUser magazine.

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