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The reality vs. the right thing to do in network/system management

Mar 27, 20064 mins
Data CenterIT Leadership

* Cognitive dissonance in IT management: Is it always a bad thing?

I often like to introduce the concept of “cognitive dissonance” when describing the disconnect between what IT managers believe is true and what they actually do. The audience is usually IT managers who end up smiling and nod their heads in agreement.

The term “cognitive dissonance” comes from psychology and describes a condition in which an individual believes two contradictory ideas at once. Cognitive dissonance can cause tension and anxiety and result in dilatory behavior and defensiveness – even when the individual, as is classically the case, isn’t fully conscious of the inherent contradictions. Taken to an extreme it can lead to more severe mental states, say when one of the two contradictory ideas is wrapped around issues of core identity and individual responsibility.

The truth is, while cognitive dissonance is at first something that seems absurd – and of course, it is logically absurd – it is fairly common. I suppose the first thing you might think about is politics, where entire political platforms may seem to require cognitive dissonance among the faithful – a fact that seems to have been true for as long as politicians have sought to woo the popular imagination.

Here are three examples that I find interesting in IT management – two of which reflect cognitive dissonance between management objectives and actual practices. The third example is I realize in some sense directed at me – and here I’ll make a case of defending cognitive dissonance, with albeit some caveats.

* Cognitive dissonance in service-level management strategies: Examples of such abound and generally reflect the difference between thorough agreement that SLM requirements are strategically important and an equally thorough unwillingness to take actions to support them.

In one bit of EMA research, I found an interesting twist focusing on the difference between wishing to be accountable to customers and taking the measures necessary to succeed. For instance, 54% of the respondents wanted to establish metrics for IT accountability, but only 25% wanted to take the trouble to relate technology to business objectives. Even more interesting was that 50% wanted to manage customer expectations, but only 29% wanted to measure actual customer satisfaction. Nearly half wanted to proceed – as is the case with many bad marriages – managing expectations without taking the time to understand how they were being perceived in return.

* Visualizing the environment for managing change: In another bit of data, IT managers insisted that it was either extremely important (45%) or simply important (49%) to visualize the IT infrastructure to manage change. On the other hand 21% simply don’t visualize it, and 43% take a purely manual approach to documenting the infrastructure, so that only about a third actually have the software tools in place to do the job.

* The IT management industry is (advancing and exciting) or (a cataclysmic failure), pick one: Probably one of the most daunting examples of cognitive dissonance is my own. The data, used in a slide that’s part of a Webinar on “Closing the Gap on Web Application Performance,” which you can listen to here, shows that IT practices for diagnosing root cause remain sadly behind what many of us might have hoped. After decades of presumed technology innovation, 51% of the respondents depended primarily on expert opinion and 19% used home-grown software tools. Only 27% actually relied on third-party solutions – that multibillion-dollar industry we all like to talk about – to help them isolate and diagnose a performance problem.

The easy answer here is to defer to this hard evidence along with mountains of other evidence and real-world dialog and consulting experience and say, well, the IT management industry has so far been a failure. And to some degree that is certainly true.

On the other hand, I write almost every day about some exciting area of innovation or breakthrough – moving from root cause and diagnostics into areas of automation and business alignment and looking at how the marketplace is poised to make another huge step forward over the next decade.

In practice, I am writing about two different things – the practiced reality and the envisioned possibility. However, I will defend my decision to believe in both. Denying the reality, no matter how tempting, is of course the first step towards madness. But to give up on possibility is, in my view, like entering Dante’s Inferno – a step towards the abandonment of hope. What I suppose I live for are those very, very rare moments when reality and possibility can be brought to coincide.