The Taxonomy of IT – Part 1
Do you remember from high school, how we were all taught to classify biology via the old adage: “King Philip Came Over For Good Steak?" The adage allowed us daydreaming students to remember the 7 layers of classification, which were Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species. Since this is a new year, and hopefully a year of tremendous technological advances in the world of IT, I thought it would be appropriate to apply this classification to IT. Besides, the only way to look forward to new IT “species” is to fully understand what we have today, is it not?
Each classification level provided a way to group organisms by shared characteristics, allowing for definition of their key aspects, and eventually enabling relationships to be developed. For example, The Honey Badger (of recent fame) is of the Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata, Class Mammalia, Order Carnivora, Family Mustelidae, Genus Mellivora, Species Capensis. Which translates to: They are an animal with a backbone, which breaths air and gives birth to live young which they nurse, has teeth and claws and primarily eats meat, has short legs and ears, thick fur and is active year round, is most like a weasel in appearance, and is native to the southern African and Middle Eastern continents.
Now, within IT we can take a similar approach in classification (and, no this is not the OSI model, but interesting how OSI also has seven layers of classification?). For this exercise, let’s start at the top and work our way down.
At the Kingdom level, IT can be classified in one of three ways:
A Cost Center – where IT may support internal business functions and management needs, but does not directly influence production or revenue. An example may be a retail organization’s Point of Sale platform, or a manufacturer’s ERM solution. These are generally seen as cost overlays to the business.
For obvious reasons, if IT is a cost center then the persistent view is that investments in IT will not net a return, but will negatively impact profit levels. The challenges here are to identify what the business is willing to spend in IT and create the most effective organization possible. IT is given limited strategic brain-time, and new expenditures are a negative experience. To be purely in the Cost Center mode, a business would need to be able to survive at sufficient levels without technology in place, which in today’s world is a rare breed indeed. However, these organizations do exist, even if only in their own perspective. Some of the largest technology gaps show up in areas such as redundancy, data protection, DR, and security.
Operational Enabler – IT in these organizations has bridged from being considered a Cost Center to an influencing component in the success of the organization in delivering their service or solution to their clients. Firms leverage IT as a differentiator or competitive advantage, and often some level of direct customer delivery is tied to IT.
In these organizations, IT is both a cost of doing business and a key component of a successful business plan. Investments are made judiciously, with a focus on ROI and lower TCO. IT may also spend more in critical areas than in underlying infrastructure or platforms. It’s not uncommon to find state-of-the-art business platforms being supported by legacy networks and lower tier storage devices. Redundancy is often sacrificed, and upgrades/improvements put off until the next budget cycle. Within IT there may be different levels of importance defined on different platforms, leading the organization to a front-end/back-end mentality towards investment.
A Profit Generator – where IT directly impacts revenue or profit levels. eCommerce, software development, and marketing organizations are good examples here. IT is either the service/solution your customers are purchasing from you or is a critical path in the delivery of your service/solution.
Here you will find financially backed IT environments that are consistently maintained and updated. The organization realizes that their livelihood is heavily or entirely reliant on IT, and will overfund rather than skimp. At a platform level, high levels of resiliency, recoverability and scalability are the norm. IT staffs are larger and better trained. On the flip side, with the organizational expectations so high, you will also find less margin for error, delay or impact. External support from partners, managed services providers and other 3rd parties are prevalent here.
At the top level, IT can be classified by the view of the organization in terms of the benefit it provides to the business. The lines are not completely distinctive, and do rely on individual perspective. However, this classification level will set the foundational view of IT in the organization, and will likely determine the course of action for most, if not all, IT decision making. Like the Kingdom level in biology, where distinction is at a cellular level and not always visually apparent, this IT classification level can be deceiving. The Venus fly trap, which qualifies as a Plantae in most ways, gets its nutrition via consuming other organisms, which is a characteristic of the Kingdom Animalia. So, if you are dealing with a Cost Center classification, you may find sublevels of the other classes within the organization.
The next level down of classification (Phylum) should build off of these three designations, further defining the business’s approach to IT. The key characteristics of these deviations are centered on the pace of change and adoption of new technologies and best practices. In my next blog entry, I’ll look at both the Phylum and Class levels of the taxonomy of IT.