OPINION: The dirty word in digital leadership

IT governance is a key function for understanding business drivers and to ensure that ICT assets responsibly deliver business outcomes.
  • George Aranyi (Computerworld New Zealand)
  • 14 October, 2013 12:16

IT governance seems to be an often misunderstood term within information technology. We are seeing an increasing unease within businesses moving from those who simply have an impression that it is only in place to slow things down, to the point where even some of the very fundamentals of governance are being obfuscated in order to avoid an emotional reaction.

Perhaps this is a reflection of modern society where business and people have to run very quickly just to avoid moving backwards and anything that might look like a “speed bump” is treated with suspicion.

IT governance is synonymous with appropriate braking technology and perhaps this is why it is so often interpreted, both in its implementation and operation, as slowing down delivery of a programme or portfolio of technology development.

IT governance, just as with braking technology, should be in place to ensure that you are able to travel very fast with the assurance that you can stop safely when and as needed.

Too often the practice of IT governance is replaced with institution, at which point it starts to look more like a museum than facilitating living and effective conversations.

Here, I would like to consider what is the fundamentally important aspect of IT governance, and how it ensures that appropriate governance is in place. Namely, that the right people are in the right room at the right time, to ensure the best possible decision.


The most significant challenge in IT today is choice. Not that you will make the wrong choice, but that there are so many right choices that you can be caught in a continuous cycle of analysis paralysis.

IT governance decisions should empower people to make downstream decisions with clear guidance and escalation paths, and without fear of re-litigation. Engagement is a critical factor for successful decision making.

Research from the MIT Center for Information Systems Research (CISR) has found that IT departments struggle with the dilemma of balancing organisation-wide strategies with requests from business units to implement local solutions.

An effective IT engagement model should ensure that all relevant stakeholders are able to negotiate between competing demands, to influence and learn from each other, and to work collaboratively to achieve local and organisation-wide objectives:

The IT engagement model consists of three components:

Organisation-wide IT governance: Clearly understood decision rights and accountability of organisation and business unit level stakeholders to define organisation-wide objectives and encourage desirable behaviour in the use of IT.
Project management: A formalised and understood project management process, with clear deliverables and regular check-points that encourages predictable behaviour for project teams.
Linking mechanisms: Processes and decision-making bodies that connect project-level activities to the overall IT governance.

CISR also identified that firms with a stronger level of alignment distinguished themselves by engaging IT and non-IT stakeholders in three areas:

Establishing and maintaining a daily level of conversation between IT and non-IT peers. Ensuring that different projects link to corporate goals and shared resources. Assessing and learning from project performance.

Perception is nine-tenths of the law

You can find examples of great localised IT governance that suffer from a lack of clarity and broader appreciation for how and when decisions should be made to ensure success.

This results in inconsistency and confusion, and more often than not an unfair perception of ineffective and costly delivery of IT programmes and projects. The primary focus of an engagement model is the effective and efficient utilisation of resources.

Critical to this, is ensuring the correct level of governance is established to ensure that the right people are engaged at the right time, to make the best decisions:

The central practices are:

Plan: Provide a key governance platform defining the future state and ensuring that IT responsibly delivers business outcomes
Operate: Provide a framework to appropriately plan the maintenance and extension of the platform, so that IT can continue to meet its service expectations
Build: Provide clear direction and guidance for the requirements and components that drive the way we make changes to the platform
Exploit: Where the platform provides opportunities to exploit the capabilities that are built into the platform and becomes the primary engagement for business stakeholders.

IT governance is a key function for understanding business drivers and to ensure that ICT assets responsibly deliver business outcomes. Businesses are constantly making decisions that impact how they make the best use of their ICT resources. It is not always clear, or understood, what information has been used to guide decisions, or how and where decision are made and enforced.

In order to avoid unnecessary conflict and confusion a business should ensure that the decision making process is transparent and that all impacted stakeholders are engaged in the formulation and promulgation of decision support material, the allocation of decision rights and the determination of decisions.

George Aranyi is practice director with Equinox IT's Architecture Practice. He's worked in information technology for the past 20 years and has deep knowledge as an architect and designer with a track record of success in complex and challenging programmes across finance, energy, education and government.