Governing the Garden

I’m a frequent listener of Biotech Nation with Dr. Moira Gunn, available through IT Conversations, and have begun learning more about the world of biotechnology. In doing so, I realized that there are some good analogies between the practices in agriculture and what we need for governance from IT. I’m not the first one to use an agriculture analogy, as Neil Macehiter and Neil Ward-Dutton described the IT technology landscape as a garden in their book, “The Technology Garden: Cultivating Sustainable IT-Business Alignment.”

When we grow something, it starts with the seed. The seed needs to germinate to grow into something, be it corn, wheat, soybean, etc. There’s plenty of things that can go wrong at this stage, so seeds are normally pre-treated with some form of protection, such as an pesticide. Once the seed germinates and the plant begins to grow, the farmer or gardener now needs to worry about weeds and insects. In the past, this involved heavy doses of chemicals, be it pesticides or herbicides. The problem with these is that these chemicals tend to work selectively on particular bugs or particular weeds. If you had a different bug or a different weed, you threw more chemicals on it. Not only is there risk that these chemicals stay on the food that the plants produce, but also that the runoff does harm to the environment. Today, there are non-specific herbicides that will kill just about anything that is green and leafy. The problem with this is that is would normally kill the crop. To that end, biotechnology has allowed crops to be grown that have a resistance to these non-specific herbicides. The net result is that less chemicals are necessary. Rather than continual spraying of selective herbicides, a single spray of a non-specific herbicide can be used.

So how does this relate to governance? The seed is the typical IT project. This is the thing that we’re trying to grow. Pick the wrong seed and you have problems. If you don’t pre-treat the seed, it may never germinate. The theme here is that projects need to be positioned for success from the beginning. There are activities that take place at the inception (or even before) of a project that can make or break your efforts. Given that most IT shops are still very tactical in their activities, SOA adoption is still predominantly a bottom-up effort. If you don’t properly scope your projects, as well as watch it carefully at the beginning so that any service development efforts are properly scoped, your chances of SOA success (or long-lasting IT success for that matter), will be less.

Step two in the growing process was the use of biotechnology. These plants have genetics that create a resistance toward the bad things that could come along. In the IT project sense, this is all about making the right thing the path of least resistance. If you’re successful with doing this through education, tooling, and mentoring, you won’t need to worry about review committees and rigid processes, because your seed will naturally do the right thing.

Finally, there is still a need for some general oversight. Weeds can still grow in your garden, and those weeds can consume vital resources that your plants need to live. In the IT sense, this isn’t about the specific decisions on the projects, it’s about the resources allocated to the project. Even if your architecture is sound, if your resources aren’t empowered to do the right thing, or if they’re pulled in many directions by multiple projects, you’re going to have problems.

So, while many people have frequently used the city planning analogy for architecture and governance, I’m beginning to like the gardening/farming analogy even more. Create an environment that positions things for success, make the “right thing” the path of least resistance for the project, and finally, keep the weeds out, allowing the resources allocated to focus on making the project successful.

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