IT Governance and “Technological solutionism”

At first sight, there wouldn’t seem to be much to connect the impassioned writings of a Belarussian journalist and the sober reflections of a small standards working group that met for its second meeting in Tokyo this past week.

Cover of However, they have more in common than one could imagine. The journalist, Evgeny Morozov, has presented in his most recent book “To Save Everything, Click Here – The Folly of Technological Solutionism” an excoriating critique of what he sees as a major societal danger – that of an elite of technology leaders assuming leadership in domains of which they have absolutely no undertanding nor experience. Silicon Valley, he argues, is on a quest “to fit us all into a digital straightjacket” and yet

Imperfection, ambiguity, opacity, disorder, and the opportunity to err, to sin, to do the wrong thing: all of these are constitutive of human freedom…the urgency of the problems in question does not automatically confer legitimacy upon a panoply of new, clean, and efficient technological solutions so in vogue these days.

Ah, “solutions” – we see the promise of them everywhere (and yes, I confess, it was there in the strapline “Thoughtful Solutions” of my former company, Pensive – but that was when I was younger and more naive). Surely there is nothing wrong with seeking solutions? Well actually, yes there is, as Morozov points out: thinking that any and every issue can be “solved” puts us into a frame of mind where every “problem” ultimately has a corresponding solution. As he rightly argues, this is far from true in the real world. Some issues are simply not “solvable”, many others are not problems to begin with. There is also a deeper misundertsanding that he explores – the distinction that I refer to in my own work between “Outcomes” and “Outputs”. A hilarious example of the difference between outputs and outcomes (unless you are the taxpayers concerned) can be found over on the BBC website.

And this is where the working group in Tokyo comes in to the picture.

A little under a year ago, the (take a deep breath) International Standards Organisation and International Electrotechnical Commission’s Joint Technical Committee #1 – better known simply  (and gratefully) as “JTC 1” – decided to establish a new working group to take on standardisation work in the field of “Governance of IT”.

Corporate Governance hit the headlines after the turn of the Millennium following the spectacular collapse of companies like Enron and WorldCom and the introduction of legislation such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in the USA. There was a feeling that even if large corporations were well managed there were certainly not well governed. The distinction is important. Managers are concerned with deliverables, projects, product lines – in short, with outputs. “Governors”, in practice Boards of Directors, are concerned with the overall impact of the corporation, with outcomes.

In economic models not obsessed purely with the stock value of public companies, corporate governance is concerned with wider economic issues such as the impact on jobs, welfare, the community and environment – arguably the true economic cost of capitalism, the overall societal and economic outcomes of their operations.

If management is concerned with outputs – which are tractable and can be measured – while governance is concerned with outcomes, how can governance be measured? This is the heart of the issue that this new JTC 1 working group is scoped to address. What became rapidly apparent in the discussions last week is that there are many areas of technology where management may be good but where governance is appalling or completely absent: cloud computing, data privacy, Smart Grids and Smart Cities, so-called “Big Data”, the “Internet of Things”. All present enormous governance issues but you wouldn’t always know it, to see the way the ideas are promoted and sold by technology leaders and evangelists – which is precisely Morozov’s core concern: letf in the hands of the technologists, many of these important technology developments will simply not be considered, deployed or evaluated for their wider social, economic and cultural impacts.

This week in London, a special group within JTC 1 will be considering the future of work done on IT Governance and how it is handled within the complex global standardisation system: the frontrunner proposal is that all aspects of management and governance of IT should be handled by a new, dedicated group and that all existing work in the respective fields be transferred to it.

This is proposed, not because management and governance are so similar; nor because the issues to be addressed are the same; but precisely because it would be better for everyone concerned that a single group discuss and determine the appropriate boundaries between the two disciples and thus be able to better target the work that is needed and assign it to the most appropriate group to provide responses and guidelines. If not, there is a danger that “IT governance” withers as a ghetto, minority, interest, while IT managament flourishes without the appropriate insights and oversight of non-IT governirs.

At present, too many  IT issues are handled as if they are purely management issues rather than governance issues. Addressing this however requires tow cultural and organisational changes:

  • firstly, it means that IT “managers” be willing to recognise and accept that their role, although important, should focus on management and does not extend to advising what’s best for the organisation or assessing the impact of technology use (there is another, related distinction, that I explore in the following post);
  • secondly, that Boards of Directors stop shirking their responsibilities and abdicating all responsibility for IT governance because it is “just” or “too” technical. They need to focus on the overall impact and outcomes that use of technology will have on and in their organisations and not be afraid to ask questions.

The distinction is important and goes to the heart of what went wrong with corporations such as Enron. The financial managers were doing their job – and many probably thought that they were doing the right thing to help the corporation – but governance failed abysmally.

It took those failures for legislators and corporations alike to realise that there was a clear separation of responsibilities between governors and managers. The big problem we face is in recognising the similarity – after all, technology geeks are so much more fun and cool than “boring” accountants, so we are more likely to be swayed by their siren song. However, what was true for financial management a decade ago, is true for IT management today. We ignore the distinction between management and governance at our peril and we need to address IT governance as soberly as we have started to do for other aspects of corporate governance. I’m happy to be part of that work and I sincerely hope that JTC 1 fully appreciates the import of its deliberations on the way forward.

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One Response to IT Governance and “Technological solutionism”

  1. Pingback: CIO or CTO – what’s in a name? | Peter's Pensieve

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