Why the IBM System Implementation Approach is IT Centric and Elitist

Executive Summary

  • Understanding the IBM systems implementation approach and why is it so simpatico with how many IT departments like to behave?
  • Does IBM’s approach lead to good outcomes and why is the approach elitist?

Introduction

I observe this perspective quite commonly in IT departments that they have become so tired of the business that they support that they basically dismiss the concerns out of hand. I call this the IBM systems implementation approach because IBM is probably the most extreme example of a company that just does not care about whether its systems improve the condition of the user community. Companies like IBM have a great incentive to take this approach because they are paid to implement systems successfully, so IBM wants to declare that its implementations are successes, and the best and least expensive way to do this is to simply declare that they are and that the problems are the fault of the user. However, another part is the reason is that this is the internal culture of IBM, and is simply the type of people who are attracted to work at IBM.

Justification

One way that IBM or IT departments undermine the concerns of the business is that they question their knowledge. This is a concern because IT people are generally themselves not experts in the business process. Therefore, to take the IBM approach, it is important to consider oneself a business expert as well as an IT expert. That is step one, that the business neither has invested enough time understanding the system and aren’t managing their business very well. The next step is to decry the intelligence of the users, but also the managers of the users who are trying to channel feedback related to the system back to IT.

Is This True?

The fact is this is the user community that the implementation has to work with. It’s not functional to simply undermine the users intelligence. Firstly, its irrelevant, even if we accept for a moment that it is true, it does not matter because the users are what the company has to work with. Secondly, if the system is in fact too advanced for the users, then doesn’t this fall back into the laps of the executive decision makers who had a responsibility to select appropriate software for their users? Thirdly, my experience has on multiple accounts has shown that most derogatory statements like this about users’ abilities turn out not to be true. In the vast majority of examples, either the system output is just not very good, or the system is in some way difficult to use. In some cases, the implementation was so poorly performed that basic master data was not included in the system.

In many cases, the system that causes the problems restricts the users from getting the promised value out of the system because of poor software design. This gets back to the question of software selection, and the fact that companies remove users from the selection process. Users should have representation on all software selections since these are the people who are going to drive the application. The fact that this is not done, allows software companies to deliver less usable systems, but which look good in a demo or on paper. My experience is that it is exceedingly easy to fool executives, but much more difficult to fool users, and that the less capable an application the more the sales team wants to keep it away from users during the pre-sales process.

How Different is This from the Microsoft versus Apple Debate?

For years the battle between Microsoft and Apple pitted essentially an IT perspective versus a user perspective. For decades Microsoft blamed the user, came up with excuses for why the next version would be better and generally disabled people and companies with their low quality and difficult to use software. Meanwhile, Apple always puts the user experience in the forefront. After years of taking a user approach, there is simply no comparison between Windows and OS X. Those people that are sane and unbiased, that have the opportunity to use both, prefer Apple. For decades Microsoft essentially won in the marketplace, and one of the great reasons was that companies, which primarily don’t care about their employees and wanted cheap computers went with Microsoft over Apple. This gave Microsoft the volume and the network effect and combined with monopoly behaviors allowed them to lock in most the consumer market.

The software industry conformed around Microsoft and Apple was almost knocked out of the game. If it had not been for a small group of independent thinkers that were willing to pay extra for a better user experience and were connoisseurs of computers, the rest of us would not have the choice of buying a better operating system today (or the iPod or iPad or countless other great inventions from Apple), but would be stuck using exclusively Windows machines (yes, I understand Linux would be another option, but Linux is not Apple. Has anyone seen groups of excited customers congregating in Linux Stores as they do at Apple Stores?)

This is the problem with allowing large companies to make selections that impact other industries, they tend to choose “practical” short-term oriented solutions that meet budgetary and risk aversion constraints, but end up being less capable. I was tortured for years having to use awful PC laptops provided by my employers until I became and independent consultant and finally had effective and usable computers (MacBooks and iMacs), email (Gmail) and a content management system (WordPress), that no company I ever worked for could provide.

This historical lesson is about as perfect an analogy as the past tends to offer up. Two different companies with two drastically different orientations. Microsoft’s orientation was to discount what the user wanted and say take it or leave it. The following statement could be described as their overall strategy.

“We will have so much more software designed for us, and so many monopoly arrangements with hardware manufacturers that if you don’t like it…you have no choice.”

This is the IBM pie in the face approach in its purest form. Apple, on the other hand, kept focusing on making software that was about enabling the user, not calling the user stupid or seeing them as a mark to be fleeced, but as someone like themselves who wanted something easy and even fun to use. The end result, which I am typing on now, is a computer that enables the user to do whatever they want. The lesson from this story is clear, make solutions that people actually want to use, do not dismiss their concerns or minimize their intelligence, and people will seek you out to use your products.

Elitism

Elitism is a greatly misused word at least in the US, so in the interest of using it correctly for the next portion of this article, it is important to spend a moment discussing its meaning.

Perversion of the Word Elite

It is unclear when this began exactly, but Nixon was well-known for disdaining “elites” which were primarily large and influential media outlets that opposed his policies. Nixon was generally poorly educated, read very little and was more a tactician than executive in mindset. He had a quick reductionist mind but had difficulty with abstract concepts. Feelings of inadequacy about his ability to perform the job of President, most likely lead to his mental instability and the highly risky and illegal activities he approved.

Richard Nixon was one of the early proponents of misusing the term elite or elites. It’s doubtful Nixon was ever accused of being intellectually elite, however, he was, by definition part of the elite as he was a long-time senator and of course president. There is something quite strange about a member of the elite, who was quite disinterested in sharing power or compromising (another characteristic of the negative definition of elite) calling other people elite or elitist. For instance, imagine the King of France in the 1850s criticizing a political opponent because they were elite. That would be just as strange.

Since Nixon, the term elites has been used as a derogatory term for people how are not in agreement with the conventional wisdom or find the arguments for certain, generally conservative policies as unconvincing. However, it is important to recognize that this is not the actual definition of the word. In fact, the word has two general meanings. One is an accolade, which is to simply be good or in a top ranking, and the other is pejorative which is related to the aristocracy.

“Elite – noun – hobnobbing with Southport’s elite: best, pick, cream, crème de la crème, flower, nonpareil, elect; high society, jet set, beautiful people, beau monde, haut monde, glitterati; aristocracy, nobility, upper class. ANTONYMS dregs.” Apple Dictionary

From this, it can be seen that the modern usage of the term elite or elitism is not correct, as it confuses negative and positive attributes while making the term generally negative. The negative use of the word applies not to people or groups who have achieved a certain status or position of influence because they are in fact “elite” at what they do, but because they simply inherited a position through no achievement of their own.

Elitism in IT

Self-centeredness is the most basic of human cognitive features. Royalty through the ages convinced themselves that the allocation of resources that they enforced with private guards and their military was the correct or just resource distribution in that society. The extreme wealth of royalty in all societies, along with their clear lack of value add combined with the severe and easily altered poverty of the people they essentially owned shows how flexible the mind is in rationalizing logically unsupportable positions. Both IBM, many of the major consulting companies and many IT departments follow the approach that users should simply use the system they have designed and that their inputs and rights should be extremely limited. These same people will tell you how much they support democratic principles. IBM is one of the great proponents of this IT-centric view of the world. When individuals that work in IT or for IBM dismiss the concerns of their users, and insult them and their capabilities, they are engaging in a form of elitism which is actually quite dysfunctional. It’s also circular in its logic and highly self-centered. To agree with the users would mean having to analyze many of the decisions that lead to the users having a system they don’t like and one they simply find ways to work around.

Are IT Decisions Generally Good?

In a word no. The decision-making in companies with respect to information technology is in general atrocious. The software I see selected is often the worst of what is available, but it is selected because it has a brand, because someone has a relationship with someone, or they simply don’t understand what they are selecting and are not motivated to delegate the analysis to someone who does. The very fact that companies continue to hire large consulting companies to perform their implementations, makes it crystal clear that companies to do not understand how to manage their IT dollars. I can walk into any company and have a better IT infrastructure than they have, simply in the choices I have made for myself. Some of the difference is due to having the more expensive hardware, but others are simply to understanding technology better. Many of my tools, like Gmail and WordPress, are free.

In fact, decision-making in IT is so bad that it has led me to read books on the evolutionary reasons for irrationality. One book which I am reading titled The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God by neuroscientist David J Linden describes how the brain is really just an organ which was simply designed in a rather accidental manner (as is all biology), with new parts simply grafted on to the older parts. In a rush to self-indulgently praise “human intelligence,” we misunderstand the limitations of the organ and imbue it with properties which it in many cases does not have. As stated in the excellent book, Understanding Stupidity, there are enough books to fill a library on intelligence, but almost nothing on stupidity.

IT decisions in companies are so bad that I have turned to neuroscience studies and evolutionary biology to understand why decisions are made the way they seem to be.

Therefore, to witness the decision-making in IT, and then to hear IBM or IT, in general, degrade users, is either absurd or surreal, I am not sure which.

“Why can’t the users understand what a fantastic system we have created for them, it must be because they are stupid. It certainly must be, because we have created such a great system for them.” – Typical Quote from the Follow of the IBM Approach

The Self-Centeredness of the Business

This is not to say that the business is not often self-centered as well. Certainly, not everything the user community wants is possible and in some cases, they are not advisable for one reason or another. However, one of the great delusions that I encounter from the business side is that the company is dedicated to funding solutions for them to a greater degree than they actually are. The company is typically trying to meet the needs of their executives to defend their old decisions, to associate with major brands and to seek advancement far more than they are to bring anything of quality to the user community.

Conclusion

The approach of IBM, many IT departments, and others in diminishing the requests of the business is simply another form of insensitive elitism that goes quite a far way back in history. It is no longer considered fashionable to wear powdered wigs and to decry the stench of peasants or the inability to find a properly motivated slave, but it is considered perfectly acceptable to insult the capabilities of many people who do the real work in the company. While this may feel good in the short-term and brings an intoxicating feeling of superiority combined with the reduction in cognitive dissonance as to why users don’t like the system one designed or implemented, it is ultimately counterproductive, and in most cases based on faulty assumptions which are easily disproved. It is, however, a very effective way of providing not particularly usable systems while feeling good at the same time.

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References

Enterprise Software Risk Book

Rethinking Enterprise Software Risk: Controlling the Main Risk Factors on IT Projects

Better Managing Software Risk

The software implementation is risky business and success is not a certainty. But you can reduce risk with the strategies in this book. Undertaking software selection and implementation without approximating the project’s risk is a poor way to make decisions about either projects or software. But that’s the way many companies do business, even though 50 percent of IT implementations are deemed failures.

Finding What Works and What Doesn’t

In this book, you will review the strategies commonly used by most companies for mitigating software project risk–and learn why these plans don’t work–and then acquire practical and realistic strategies that will help you to maximize success on your software implementation.

Chapters

Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Enterprise Software Risk Management
Chapter 3: The Basics of Enterprise Software Risk Management
Chapter 4: Understanding the Enterprise Software Market
Chapter 5: Software Sell-ability versus Implementability
Chapter 6: Selecting the Right IT Consultant
Chapter 7: How to Use the Reports of Analysts Like Gartner
Chapter 8: How to Interpret Vendor-Provided Information to Reduce Project Risk
Chapter 9: Evaluating Implementation Preparedness
Chapter 10: Using TCO for Decision Making
Chapter 11: The Software Decisions’ Risk Component Model