What generates uncertainty of IT endeavors? Inadequate communication is one factor

In this series of short articles, I intend to elaborate on the nature of information technology (IT) risk, starting by explaining factors that generate uncertainty in IT endeavors, for which generations of scientists, engineers, professionals, and enthusiasts have been trying to find ways to plan and predict the outcomes.

It is hard to dispute that IT changes our habits and our business practices. For example, today, can you imagine retail banking without online banking? What was your first association with e-commerce—perhaps Amazon, or eBay? If you want to check a definition, or find a quick reference, do you check Wikipedia or Google?

Many IT corporations, such as Google, Facebook, and Apple, achieved unprecedented business success [Melanson], [Reguly]. And there are other non-IT companies that managed to embrace and invent new technologies and adapt their business models accordingly with varying degrees of success. For example, the adaptation of Fuji was a success; whereas the adaptation of Kodak was much less so [The Economist].

The days when the IT mission was only to reduce costs or improve operations are long gone. IT evolved to create entirely new kinds of businesses and business models that are based on the Internet and World Wide Web.

However, as I discussed in my February article, perhaps because of ever-present new media, empowered by social networks, IT failures receive a lot of publicity. Note that losses are not monetary only; there are also ethical aspects of IT failures, such as lost safety of patients (e.g., 911 and health sector applications), or the undermining of national security (e.g., China cyber attacks in U.S. [Dilanian].) At this point, I would like to remind the reader of the definition of IT, and how easily this definition becomes confused due to the plurality of views on the subject.

Merriam-Webster’s definition of Technology is:

“1 a : the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area : engineering 2 <medical technology>b : a capability given by the practical application of knowledge <a car's fuel-saving technology>

2: a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge <new technologies for information storage>

3: the specialized aspects of a particular field of endeavor<educational technology>”

Furthermore, Merriam-Webster’s definition of Information Technology reads:

“: the technology involving the development, maintenance, and use of computer systems, software, and networks for the processing and distribution of data.”

Thus, IT comprises products (e.g., hardware, software), but also human activity developed around those products. Here is a functional breakdown of activities of IT endeavors (depending on the scope, various configurations are possible), and examples of concepts related to these activities:

  • Development (e.g., software development methods)
  • Manufacture (e.g., computer manufacturing, such as tablets, smart phones)
  • Usage and integration into services (e.g., user experience, business services)
  • Operations and maintenance (e.g., incident response)
  • Management (e.g., lowering operational costs, increasing revenue, creating new lines of business or producing new products, exploitation of technology in order to maximized shareholders’ value)
  • Creation of new knowledge and knowledge transfer (e.g., research, education, training)

Although the last activity is not explicitly mentioned in the above given dictionary definitions, it is the author’s position that this view must be considered as one of the fundamental factors of IT. Various authors (e.g., Levenson, Jones) noted that an important dimension of IT is innovation and creation of entirely new products, services, new business models, and new relationships among business, and new economies. Therefore, it follows that the creation and transfer of new knowledge is becoming a fundamental factor for the successes of IT products and of processes (or services) supported by these products. In other words, because of requirements for swift product and service delivery, the link with science— that is, being able to apply scientific knowledge fast—is becoming unavoidable.

So, what people are involved in these IT endeavors?

Functional Architects—Depending on the scope of the endeavor (or project), there may be a number of functional architects (e.g., business, information, application, systems, technical, solution, enterprise, security and privacy architects).

Other IT Functional Groups—There are also other Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) functional groups such as design, development (sometimes various programming languages), testing, operations (including operational security), and maintenance.  Depending on the scope, various profiles and levels of hardware specialists may be involved.

Business People—If the IT endeavor is enterprise-wide, there might be involvement from multiple businesses. Some endeavors include third party staff, third party consultants, business managers, or sales people. 

Various Users— Depending on the scope of the endeavor, there might be various users, groups, the public, unpredictable backgrounds, skills, and habits when using IT

Management—Whatever the size of the endeavor, senior management is always involved, whether directly or via other management groups, such as the Project Management Office (PMO).

Legal and Regulatory Representatives—There are also times when legal advice is necessary (e.g., privacy impact), or controlling functions, such as auditors or regulators, are present.

Although I will not attempt to make one-to-one mapping between functional activities and groups of people involved, the two can be aligned and organizational charts of IT endeavors, as well as job titles, tend to reflect functional breakdown.

Because the above stakeholders often have different geographical, political, language, and cultural backgrounds, the social dynamics of IT endeavors are made even more complex. Stakeholders also come from a variety of different educational backgrounds and functional groups, from MBAs, economists, engineers and various business subject matter experts, to accountants, lawyers, and those without formal education for their jobs.

These differences make communication among stakeholders particularly uncertain. It is easy to see how in these diverse and complex social environments, communications, and relationships among the stakeholders may be distorted, or broken. In such environments, power, money games, and politics can easily take precedence over creativity, innovation, and constructive activities essential for meeting the endeavor’s objectives. The IT endeavor can easily be high jacked to serve interests other than meeting (or exceeding) the intended objectives.

The simple reality is, however, that IT endeavors may experience difficulties (or completely fail) because of uncertainty in any of the stakeholders’ functional areas. It is in the nature of IT that uncertainty originating in one stakeholder’s functional area will usually impact another.

Consider the following examples:

  • An inadequate architecture slows down development, resulting in less than robust code. This in turn, causes many service incidents, customer dissatisfactions, high code maintenance costs, until finally the whole endeavor collapses like a house of cards.
  • The IT service may be perfectly delivered and embedded into the business service, but there is no demand for the business service, so the whole endeavor fails;
  • An otherwise excellent business and system architecture has a poorly executed code that is not cost-effective to maintain;
  • The CEO’s strategy for IT modernization is so inadequate that it will take too many years to fulfill and the technology completely changes during this time;
  • The development team is trying to develop new software by using software development methods that do not address the nature of their software to be.

Obviously, in order to create and implement new technology (e.g., systems and services), identify issues, and reduce uncertainty in that endeavor, a high level of knowledge sharing among the functional groups is necessary. Communication is the underlying factor for knowledge sharing, whether it is through transparency, collaboration, or cooperation. However, the diversity and separation of functional views on the IT endeavor makes communication difficult, almost doomed to fail in these complex social environments.

In addition, concepts such as transparency, collaboration, and cooperation are closely related to trust; and because cloud computing is based on the trust model, this is getting even more important as cloud computing matures.

To reduce uncertainty and succeed in IT endeavors, communication, as the underlying layer for effective knowledge sharing (second layer), must be enabled. Knowledge creation would be the third, and most complex, layer.

[Dilanian]     Dilanian, Ken. “China cyber attacks threaten U.S. security, official says,” Los Angeles Times, October 4, 2011, accessed April 17, 2012.

[Jones]     Capers, Jones; Bonsignour, Olivier. “The Economics of Software Quality”, Addison-Wesley, 2012.

[Levenson]     Levenson, G. Nancy. “Engineering a Safer World” (draft), Aeronautics and Astronautics Engineering Systems Division, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, July 2009, accessed January 16, 2012. 

[Melanson]     Melanson, Trevor. "Why Facebook may not be the next Google", Profit, Canadian Business Network, February 2, 2012, accessed on March 30, 2012, 

[Polovina]     Polovina, Rubina. “Effective Communication – Top Requirement for Risk Management”, ITSM Portal, October 17, 2011, accessed on April 17, 2012.

[Reguly]     Reguly, Eric. “Why Apple’s success is out of this world?” The Globe and Mail, January 27, 2012, accessed March 30, 2012. 

[The Economist]     The Economist. “The last Kodak moment?” January 14, 2012, accessed January 15, 2012. 

Rubina Polovina, PhD is a principal IT consultant who has been providing leadership on national and international multi-party initiatives in the public and private sectors. During more than 20 years in the IT industry, she contributed to projects in Europe, North America and in the Middle East. Currently, Rubina lives in Toronto, Ontario. She has been working on projects at major Canadian financial institutions and the Government of Ontario. Her research interests include enterprise architecture, knowledge management, IT management, IT project management, IT risk management, privacy protection, social networks and eHealth. Rubina’s scientific work has been both tested across various vertical industries and presented on peer-review international conferences. Rubina graduated in electrical engineering in 1987 from the University of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and she received her PhD in computer science and engineering in 2000 from the Czech Technical University in Prague, Czech Republic. Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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