What Generates Uncertainty of IT Endeavors?

Plurality of Views is one of the Factors

It is hard to dispute that Information Technology (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 care applications), or the undermining of national security (can you give an example here as well?).

In this series of short articles, I intend to elaborate on the nature of IT risk, and, talk about 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.

Plurality of Views on Information Technology

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 IT endeavors (depending on the scope, various configurations are possible), and examples of concepts related to these activities:


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 exactly are these activities of IT endeavors?

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

SDLC Functional Groups—There are also other Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) functional groups such as design, development (sometimes various programming languages), testing, and operations (including operational security.) 

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

Hardware Specialists—Depending on the scope, various profiles and levels of hardware specialists may be involved.

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

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

Stakeholders— Because stakeholders often have different geographical, political, language, and cultural backgrounds, the social dynamics of IT initiatives are made even more complex. Stakeholders also come from a variety of different educational backgrounds, 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, and Communication is just the underlying (or first) layer[O1] . Effective Knowledge Sharing would be the second layer, and, Knowledge Creation would be the third and most complex layer.

It is easy to see how in these diverse and complex social environments, 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 initiative’s objectives. The IT endeavour can easily be high jacked to serve interests other than meeting (or exceeding) the original objectives.

The simple reality is, however, that IT endeavours may experience difficulties (or completely fail) because of uncertainty in any of the stakeholders’ areas. It is in the nature of IT that uncertainty originating in one stakeholder’s 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 initiative 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 initiative 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.

Transparency, collaboration, and cooperation are becoming difficult, almost doomed to fail in complex social environments. In addition, all three 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.

New global trends such as globalization of economy (including global recessions), the outsourcing of IT jobs and new media (enabled by the Internet), accelerate globalization. Moreover, technologies such as social networks and cloud computing further add to this globalization and vice versa.[O2] 


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

[Levenson, Nancy]    Levenson, G. Nancy. “Engineering a Safer World” (draft), Aeronautics and Astronautics Engineering Systems Division, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, July 2009, accessed January 16, 2012. http://sunnyday.mit.edu/safer-world/safer-world.pdf

[Melanson, Trevor]    Melanson, Trevor. “Why Facebook may not be the next Google,” Profit, Canadian Business Network, February 2, 2012, accessed on March 30, 2012, http://www.profitguide.com/blog/tech/69092--why-facebook-may-not-be-the-next-google

[Polovina, Rubina]     Polovina, Rubina. “Communication – Top Requirements for Effective Risk Management.”

[Reguly, Eric]            Reguly, Eric. “Why Apple’s success is out of this world?” The Globe and Mail, January 27, 2012, accessed March 30, 2012. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/commentary/eric-reguly/why-apples-success-is-out-of-this-world/article2317909/

[The Economist]        The Economist. “The last Kodak moment?” January 14, 2012, accessed January 15, 2012. http://www.economist.com/node/21542796?fsrc=scn/fb/wl/bx/14jan12

 [O1]layers of what exactly?

 [O2]do no understand the point of this paragraph, so moved it to the end for review as to where it fits.


Risk Management

  • Could IT failures be limited or avoided? In plain English, risk is defined as ‘possibility of loss or injury’ (Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary.) Therefore, managing uncertainty by predicting, preventing and responding to the unwanted and detrimental situation – failures should be the essence of IT risk management. However, there is no unique and formal definition of IT risk that is accepted across the IT industry.