Why do systems fail?

* One main reason systems fail - recalcitrant users

We often speak about IT as being a system, but in this newsletter at least, “system” is frequently used in a more expansive sense that refers to the whole IT ecosystem - software, hardware, peopleware, and the processes through which they interoperate. Many people (wrongly) disagree with this approach, but I maintain that not accounting for all aspects of a system can only result in a sub-optimized approach whenever you try to fix a system failure.

Why do systems fail? They do so for any number of reasons. Today we’ll consider one of the main ones - recalcitrant users.

The concept of “institutional inertia” is one of my attempts to apply the laws of physics to social institutions: it tells us that a [social] body (say, a workgroup) tends to maintain its state of rest or uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force. In other words, things don’t change unless they have to.

This appears in the IT room when we see that people familiar with processes already in place often resist changeovers when new systems are implemented. Often, to enable maintaining the status quo, they invent “workarounds,” techniques that may in fact work, but which do so outside the prescribed system and which are consequently nearly impossible for the system to control.

When kicking off an important new storage project - data classification, for example, but the rule probably applies to just about everything - education programs can often preempt process workarounds that might otherwise fatally wound a new system. As part of implementing any new system then, a key part of your rollout strategy ought to include educating the stakeholders to several important points.

First, the basics: stress the importance of not resorting to process workarounds. How? Make sure that everyone appreciates the fact that going around the system creates additional risk, liability, and (in some cases) possible litigation costs to the company. If appealing to your audience’s better judgment doesn’t work, try getting their attention with a stick-and-carrot approach:

Stick No. 1: The risks and liabilities mentioned above could well extend to individual employees.

Stick No. 2: Many workarounds can be discovered through IT audit processes. If you have the necessary monitoring systems in place, make sure everyone understands that little will fall between the cracks. If you need to drive this point home, indicate situations that might result in disciplinary action against the employee.

“Carrots” are much nicer, of course. Here is a simple one:

Managers often have bonuses, and bonuses are frequently tied to corporate efficiency metrics or to the corporate bottom line. The manager’s group is likely to become more efficient in the future because it now can rely on more efficient IT processes as it does its work.

Thus, meet early on with managers, help them appreciate how the new processes will provide them with direct, personal value, and they will suddenly have a good pretext for championing the new process within their organizations.

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