building the body of knowledge

let others learn from our mistakes

Why does a body of highly intelligent people, IT professionals allegedly renowned for their logical and systematic approach to problems, find it impossible to establish a genuinely sustainable and cumulative corpus of best practice, professional knowledge and lessons learned?

ok to make mistakes

Picture credit: smile it's Shan

It seems that each new generation of IT managers is fated to repeat the mistakes of their forbears, ad infinitum, at great cost to the individuals concerned and to their employers.

One of my favourite debating points at the moment is the question of how we can effectively transmit the perceived wisdom and hard-won practical experience from generation to generation of IT managers and directors.

This conundrum has taxed me for some time because I still can’t see any substantive evidence of a general willingness to build on the understanding of those who have gone before us – at least in the business critical realms of IT management and organisational development.

It’s almost as if we enjoy playing out the role of the headstrong, self-willed, eternal teenager, who won’t listen to advice and who doesn’t want to grow up. Ever.

Harsh words, perhaps, but very often the behaviour is a simple consequence of not knowing where to find a readily available fount of relevant IT management wisdom.

For sure, it is easy enough to find technical reference material by the bucket load. But it’s very hard to find a simple, practical guide to common IT management problems – and even harder to find such a guide that is widely recognised by practitioners as the standard reference.

Whereas, when Lawyers and Doctors are faced with a problem beyond their personal knowledge and experience, they have rapid recourse to whole libraries of precedent and advice, all properly indexed and neatly cross-referenced. Which is one of the basic reasons why those more mature and august professional bodies are usually better positioned to command and sustain a much higher level of personal and corporate credibility than those of us wallowing around in the mire of IT management.

So let’s all agree now that we want to stop making life harder for ourselves than it should be.

Let’s start sharing our experience within a properly structured framework.

That must be the best way for us to pass on those sparkling pearls of wisdom and to break the endless, costly cycle of always finding things out for ourselves the hard way.

Surely it’s long overdue for the multifarious IT membership associations and professional bodies to start working together, to really create a systematic and sustainable professional approach to managing technology.

Of course, this might require some people to move beyond their well-established comfort zones, of competition and isolationism, into that apparently dangerous minefield of co-operation, collaboration and consolidation.

We certainly have a lot of catching up to do if we are ever to realise our own professional aspirations, i.e. of IT genuinely being regarded as a profession rather than merely an extended cottage industry.

This catching up exercise will not be easy and will take some time to bear fruit. In the meantime, the cost of neglect will continue to hamper our professional development.

Isn’t it high time that we got ourselves better organised and properly equipped, with a real body of professional knowledge, to manage technology and technicians more effectively?

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  • Nick

    Denial is not a river in Egypt. Human nature causes people to view their situation as unique because they focus on differences (rather than similarities) with past situations. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people say “I don’t have that problem” when it is obvious they do have that problem and then they argue a couple of excpetions when the other 100 criteria are the same. This gives them an opportunity to place the blame in other areas and avoid accountability for solving the problem.

    Sounds like a teenager to me. They have to experience the pain and reach their own conclusions and you can’t convince them otherwise.

  • Steve Holden

    Well, this takes me back to the days of “egoless programming” and the age of bell-bottomed trousers. It seems to me that the problem is at least partly the litigious age we live in. Ultimately, if the people who design and build systems admit in public that they could have done better there will be a line of others waiting to sue them and extract every last financial advantage they can from the situation.

    The same thing seems to have happened in the US medical profession, and the reason that costs are skyrocketing the way they are is that it’s easier for a physician to stick the patient’s insurance company with a bill for a probably unnecessary diagnostic test than it is to take the risk of claiming against their malpractice insurance. After all, they would feel the increase in malpractice premiums personally, whereas if patients’ insurance costs go up it won’t hurt the doctors at all.

    I wish that the legal system had more discretion. I would like to see judges saying things like “Yes, this practitioner made a mistake, but it was an honest mistake, and therefore she or he should not be held personally liable for it”. At present there is little discrimination between honest ignorance and negligent failure to observe best practices.

    I don’t have any solutions other than for us all to remember we are in the same boat and start treating each other like human beings again.

    • Colin Beveridge

      I don’t know about “ego-less” programming but I have seen stacks of blatantly “defensive” programming – designed to defend the programmer, rather than the user, or employer.

      Perhaps your final sentence sums it all up though. Thanks.

  • john milner

    Much of the problem relates to the sin of following the latest fashion. Rather than seeing each new technology and methodology as an additional tool in the professional toolbox, too many folks want to use the same new tool to address all problems, worse they want to replace perfectly satisfactory applications with new one’s exploiting the latest BIG THING.

    IT needs to mature as an engineering and administrative discipline so that it addresses problems on a value basis and uses appropriate tools and technology.

    Civil engineers didn’t suddenly make all bridges suspension bridges just ‘cos someone had come up with a new invention!

    • Colin Beveridge

      thanks for your input, John. Picking up on your point about wanting to use the latest BIG thing…

      Here is a true situation:

      Me: (on being asked to approve a new infrastructure project) Tell me exactly why we need this project?

      Project proposer: to keep our skill-set moving forward

      Me: wrong answer, not approved.

  • Grant (PG) Rule

    The longevity of organisations as diverse as the armed forces, Toyota, and The Scout Association, suggest to me that there is more to building a culture of cooperation, collaboration and consolidation than just capturing ‘lessons learned’ into standard reference documents. While you can lead an individual into a library, you can’t make him/her read (nor understand). The example cultures, and I suggest the professions to which Colin refers, have developed the means to communicate a common ethic, a vision, and to develop common habits, and to transmit this between generations.

    The Training Within Industry programme used by over 600 firms in the US during World War II gives us a model for how to effectively transmit know-how from knowledgeable to less-knowledgeable individuals.

    It is little surprise to find that, in a knowledge-based enterprise, one successful way to transmit know-how across generations is the old guild structure: apprentices learn from journeymen who learn from masters who learn from the guru, sensei, sage (whatever the western equivalent is – note: it is not ‘celebrity’).

    It is interesting to consider that guilds themselves evolved from kinship groups amongst the Anglo-Saxon peoples (from 6th century, maybe), when it was customary for injured parties to demand weregild (blood money) should an argument lead to maiming or death. Folk joined and contributed to mutual-help groups as a form of insurance, in case they should ever be liable to pay weregild. Not really so far different from the benefits offered by professional membership organisations today, eh?

    Perhaps we need to make more use of the Community Of Practice structure. To recognise that much technical know-how cannot be passed-on effectively by academic learning, but instead is conveyed through practice.

    • Colin Beveridge

      I agree, Grant. We do need to move the Community of Practice approach forward. But I know that we (IT) have been talking about doing this for the past three decades. Sooner or later, we are actually going to have to get on with it.

  • Nick

    The primary reason we don’t learn from our mistakes is the failure of the industry to establish standards and good tools that support the standards. A lack of industry standards opens the door for uncontrolled creativity (which is another way of saying everyone has to make their own mistakes without learning from the past). Standards are the mechanism for not repeating past mistakes.

    Industry leaders such as IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, etc. have failed to provide leadership. They intentionally avoid standardization to prevent customers from switching vendors. The last time the US government provided any leadership was the creation of COBOL standards in the 1960’s.

    The construction industry has many standards that everyone is required to follow. After all, who wants to work in a building that was designed by a junior engineer with no construction standards to follow. That is exactly what we do in IT. Until the industry develops industry standards and supporting tools, we will continue to have the chaos, poor quality, and project failures that results from everyone “making it up on the fly”.

  • David Flint

    Communities of practice do exist in IT but they differ from guilds in lacking powers of enforcement and in not including all, or even a decent fraction of, the practitioners. I believe the BCS should commission some research on how other professions developed effective standards and why this has not worked in IT. We may think we KNOW the answers but we need to be sure before we propose plans which may require legislation and will require money.

    • Colin Beveridge

      many thanks for your comment,David, I will pass your suggestion on to the appropriate BCS body (the Professionalism Board).

  • Grant (PG) Rule

    The US Government have tried to introduce standardisation with a view to reducing risk. For example, Ada and CMMI. Whether either of these have succeeded or failed I’ll leave to another discussion.

    But I will suggest that the failure is really on the part of customer organisations, governments in general, and the end-consumer/taxpayer in putting up with ‘poor service’. It’s as if civil society is so bemused and amazed by technology… i.e. gadgetry… that we are prepared to dispense with basic commonsense and considerations of value for money.

    I posit that institutions such as the Law Society, the British Medical Council, the Royal Institute of British Architects, and other professional bodies (i.e. the modern ‘guilds’), owe what power and influence they have, to the demand from civil society. People recognise the importance of the jobs performed by the professionals that belong to these organisations and insist on results.

    Of course, society pays a certain price, because the imposition of standards and regulations increases prices, and slows down progress. New ideas are adopted more slowly.

    Large organisations, both commercial and public sector, have the power to be much more effective in their use of software-intensive systems, throughout the whole-life of such systems. Consider Toyota, Tesco, Harley Davidson, Systematic. We already know how to be more effective. But most people can’t be asked to change.