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The more things change ...

Madison, Wis. One of the IT industry news rags was making a big deal this week about patent settlements between major players in radio frequency ID tag manufacture. Almost as a throw-away comment, the article mentioned that some customers were claiming failure rates of up to 20 percent.

The tag manufacturer was suggesting other factors like poor paper quality or even embedded tags being crunched when the paper was rolled up to tightly.

Whatever the cause, having 20 percent of one's inventory disappear off the virtual landscape of RFID probably isn't what the implementers had in mind. Reading about it made me want to put on a smart black beret, smoke a noxious unfiltered cigarette and murmur in a world-weary tone, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

IT professionals everywhere should make this their rallying cry. Automation relies on this adage. Methodologies, best practices and all kinds of efficiencies depend on giddy change being temporary and rational predictability enduring. Every data dictionary, every architecture, every standard and every protocol is based on the idea that we can somehow climb above the flood tide of restless change to a more stable, less dynamic abstraction of the events in the chaotic maelstrom called reality.
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Of course that tension between the stable abstraction and the chaotic reality is probably at the root of many an IT professional's image problems.

As I've said in other columns, it's our job to pull steaming lumps of chaos from our organizations and pour them into enough of a mold that the machines can deal with them. The trick of course is to not clip off or mangle some crucial bit of reality in the process. The difficulty of the task is only increased by the fact that things do indeed change, both in big ways and little ways, and usually at a rate that's at least one tick quicker than the underlying technology. It's no surprise that old words like flexible and extensible or new words like agile and extreme have so much allure in IT circles.

Companies I work with are responding to that dynamic tension in two very different ways.

In the first case, they're turning their IT folks into business process consultants. Their function is to understand where automation can improve the business processes and to implement those improvements both in technology and in the business process. The technology behind the automation is just another piece of the puzzle. These folks spend a lot of time figuring out the process tipping point between creative flexibility and competitive efficiencies. You know, competitive efficiencies, those are the efficiencies that work out and allow you to focus more energy and resources on your business as opposed to uncompetitive efficiencies that just help trash your reputation with your suppliers and customers more quickly. Like over-normalized databases, there is such a thing as too much efficiency even in technology.

In the second case, I'm seeing organizations take a deep breath and acknowledge that in some situations Nicholas Carr of "IT Doesn't Matter" fame might have a point no matter how badly overstated. For these organizations, usually in maturing markets or facing constricting resources, it's not that IT doesn't matter, but that other things matter more. These organizations are shrinking their hands-on, local IT expertise and buying IT products and services in much more of an off-the-shelf mode.

In the first case the companies are judiciously driving technology change from changes to the business, and using methodology and process to maintain the link. In the second case, they're making the judgment call that common, utility-like IT is good enough and are investing their attention and energy elsewhere. These folks are using common vendor-management approaches to ensure the sufficiency of their technology. Either approach is right or wrong to the extent that it is well adapted to the current realities of the organizations.

How can two opposite approaches be correct? Well, sometimes, the more things change the more they stay the same, and sometimes evolution and revolution happen. Just because the realities that shape our decisions today are very different from the realities 10 or 15 years ago, doesn't mean we're always starting from scratch. I'm optimistic that as individuals, as organizations and as societies, we're able to learn. Even if all the syntax, protocols and data structures aren't exactly the same, some of our experience, some of our hard-won perspective can be carried over from the "dark ages" of the last millennium and used in the relentlessly new worlds of technology and business we face every day.


Byron Glick is a principal at Prairie Star Consulting, LLC of Madison, Wis. Prairie Star specializes in managing the organizational impacts of technology. He can be contacted via e-mail at byron.glick@prairiestarconsulting.com or via telephone at 608/345-3958.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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