Bottom-Up Enterprise Information Systems

In Bottom-Up Enterprise Information Systems: Rethinking the Roles of Central IT Departments (behind a pay-wall), Chua and Storey look at strategies for Central IT departments to handle the challenge of these new systems.

Chua and Storey define:

Bottom-up enterprise information systems are not sanctioned by central IT, the official group within an organization responsible for IT. Nevertheless, they are implemented on an organizationwide or, minimally, a cross-functional basis. They exhibit three key characteristics. First, they are either enterprisewide, or function spanning, so the technology is used across multiple departments. Second, IT implementations are developed, configured, or procured by end users who do not necessarily have sophisticated technology skills. Third, implementation decisions are made when top management and central IT exert little formal control and have no official governance over the project.

I have several similar experiences in my computing career:

  • In the 1970’s, mini-computers, such as the VAX, were seen as giving users control over the computing power. Unfortunately, issues, such as backups and software maintenance, were going to turn users in the dreaded IT person.
  • In the 1980’s, PCs and 4GL were seen as doing away with the central IT department. The IT department responded by setting up an Info Centre to assist users with PC issues and to share experiences. This was when I was first exposed to user groups and the evangelical user who was adamant the IT department was finished.
  • In the 1990’s, departmental computers, such as the AS/400 (now i-Series), were the way of the future except when they wanted to share data with the big, bad mainframe. Indeed, the proliferation of these computers and the disparity between figures produced by them was so bad that the board of directors had to say the mainframe was the source of truth for the organisation.

In my experience. the organisational drivers to prune or abolish the Central IT department have always been there. The technology for doing so changes. Even after 40 years, the IT department is still seen as an interloper in the organisation. It is not seen as part of the family.

The article concludes:

This article has examined bottom-up enterprise information systems to understand why they are being developed and suggest how they might be managed more effectively. Modern technology (such as open source software, outsourcing, and cloud computing) enable users to bypass central IT to procure or configure their own enterprise information systems. Coupled with inherent organizational limitations, the result is bottom-up enterprise information systems becoming a new reality in many organizations. Managing such systems requires central IT to be a collaborative partner that guides functional areas toward effective IT practices. Central IT’s operational role may diminish as the functional areas assume increased duties. However, when IT roles are distributed across the organization, additional coordination is required by central IT, functional areas, and vendors alike. Practices based on distributed leadership include establishing a balance of power across central IT and the functional areas, role blurring, or having both central IT and functional areas learn one another’s skills and concepts, develop trust, and assume trusteeship to help ensure success in contemporary organizational environments.

I think that the Central IT department needs to:

  • Emphasise that organisational IT knowledge is kept by it. There was one skunk-works system that was set up by a functional user who then left without passing on their knowledge. The functional unit involved was left with a critical system that no-one could maintain.
  • Educate the users on the vital need for standard procedures such as Change Control, Incident Management, and Fault Management. I have seen systems rendered useless because there were no backups, and no testing of changes made. The reason that IT support is expensive, is because of these unseen and necessary activities.
  • Ensure the integration of systems which is vital for an organisation to survive. This may be becoming less of an issue but there are still too many competing standards for the exchange of data between systems.
  • Manage resource allocation. As the article states, this is hardly ever considered when functional units install new systems. They are unaware of what the flow-on effect of their activities.
  • Secure the organisational perimeter. In order to do this, the Central IT department needs to know what assets need to be protected. If there are hidden assets, then they cannot be protected. In one case, a functional unit installed a modem which allowed hackers into the internal network. The functional unit refused to see that they had done anything wrong.

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