Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Increasing Importance of Process Skills

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In April, the IBM 360 mainframe celebrated its 40th anniversary. The 360 is noteworthy as the computer that is commonly viewed as launching the modern era of commercial information technology. So, as “IT” turns 40, it’s worth reflecting on two “truths” that drive enterprise implementation and use of technology.

The first, Moore’s Law, underlies increasingly fast product development cycles. This applies to hardware platforms, operating systems, applications and essentially all technology products. In the time of the venerable 360, it took IBM 10 years to implement the successor platform, the 370.

Today, hardware manufacturers introduce major platform changes every two to three years, and processors are upgraded every few months. While this provides increasing price/performance benefits for IT organizations, it leads to our second “truth”. Faster technology adoption cycles result in an emphasis on technical skills at the expense of process skills.

The Past

Let’s wind the clock back 20 years and look at the typical enterprise data center. The dominant platform was an IBM mainframe running the MVS operating system. The standard operating environment was the “glass house”. In this physical setting, a typical organization had one to a handful of centrally located systems managed by a focused group of professionals.

After 20 years of relatively slow technology evolution, IT organizations developed mature operational processes. While these processes were not based on formal standards, they still contained the hallmarks of maturity.

Roles were well understood and documented. Division of responsibility resulted in more secure, higher quality systems. Change management was a standard discipline and respected by the organization.

The slow evolvement of major products also allowed IT professionals to perfect their craft in a way seldom seen in today’s Internet world. As an example, IBM’s CICS, a software product that launched the revolution of online computing for enterprises, was introduced in 1969. Systems Programmers in our typical data center of 1984 would have had 15 years of exposure to this key technology. This gave professionals the time to master the technical aspects of their profession, without sacrificing a focus on process disciplines.

Ironically, as enterprises were entering a golden age of maturity, several historical events were happening that would revolutionize the IT world in positive and negative ways. First, a new breed of systems typically called “departmental,” or “minicomputers,” was emerging from manufacturers such as Digital Equipment and Hewlett Packard. Second, the IBM PC, introduced in 1981 was starting to gain mindshare in corporations. This, along with the subsequent introduction of Microsoft Windows in 1985, would usher in the desktop computing era.

These new systems were frequently implemented by business units outside of the IT organization. While they enabled a new paradigm of fast delivery cycles to end users and unprecedented desktop analytical capabilities, they reversed the trend of increasing process maturity.

The Present

Let’s advance the clock forward to today and look at the state of technology adoption cycles versus process maturity. The continued acceleration of technology advancement has two insidious side effects.

First, new hardware technology seemingly no longer “requires” specialized environments or installation professionals. This has created the “Copier Room Data Center”. This allows anyone with an Office Depot credit card to setup their own “data center”. The end result is a Data Center completely lacking in such features as security, uninterruptible power and fire suppression.

The second side effect is a chronic focus on learning the “technology of the week.” Our mainframe systems programmer of the 1980’s still has CICS available today as a relevant technology! In today’s world of Internet based computing, IT professionals are forced to learn brand new technologies on a yearly basis.

The end result of this dynamic is two-fold. First, companies have “lowered the bar” on hiring credentials, viewing one or two years of platform/product specific experience as adequate. A specific accreditation such as a Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE) is enough to connote expert status.

This, in turn, has led to a feeding frenzy for technical accreditations, which incidentally is often defined by the vendor of the technology. Unfortunately, being a technical subject matter expert on the Windows platform, or any purely technical area for that matter, with no grounding in process disciplines, such as change management, simply makes for a dangerous professional. It’s like putting someone with no driving experience behind the wheel of a Ferrari without even explaining local driving laws.

For example, a new technician with excellent technical skills may not see the harm in installing a major patch on a critical production server during the middle of the business day whereas an experienced engineer would cringe at the idea.

Moving Forward
In order to counter the destabilizing forces of rapid technology change, the following options must be carefully considered:

  1. IT organizations must implement formal IT governance programs. Frameworks such as COBIT®, ITIL®, and CMMI can be used to drive a culture of mature practices across the organization. These frameworks provide solid foundations and are timeless with broad applicability.
  2. IT organizations must carefully weigh the destabilizing effects of rapid technology adoption. Slowing down this adoption cycle can enable greater expertise with products and allow for a stronger process focus.
  3. IT organizations must consider process maturity skills as a major hiring factor along with technology specific credentials.
  4. IT professional organizations need to define well accepted accreditations in the IT Governance space. These accreditations need to supplant the vendor driven accreditations (e.g. MCSE) as the “Good Housekeeping” seal for IT professionals.
  5. Academia must incorporate a process focus in their technology curriculums. While technology specific courses (e.g. JAVA programming) have a limited shelf life, courses stressing fundamental process disciplines will provide a solid grounding for the individual that will last the student for a career and clearly benefit employers.


Today’s organizations need to get back on track in terms of a focus on processes and process improvement. Today’s regulatory environment and investors are demanding more and more from IT that absolutely require process and control disciplines. To this end, organizations must hire and retain employees based not just on technical skills, but process skills as well. IT tools will come and go, but the processes learned along the way provide the real value.

This article was developed through contributions to the IT Process Institute (ITPI). The ITPI, a not for profit organization, is engaged in three principle areas of activity: research, benchmarking and the development of prescriptive guidance for practitioners and business executives. For more information, please visit their website.


This article was first published on ITSM Watch, a JupiterWeb site.

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