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Plato and the Art of IT Governance Part 1 in a Series on Business, IT and Governance

Originally published January 5, 2012

"Until kings are philosophers and philosophers are kings, cities will never cease from ill.”
- Plato

Why is IT governance such an important theme? Don't we have an organizational structure to govern business functions such as IT? Why are marketing governance or human resources governance much less of an issue? Don't we have a CIO whose job it is to govern IT? And don't we have an organizational structure with program managers, project managers on the development side, and administrators and support specialists on the maintenance side? Aren't there solid methodologies out there that help manage and govern work, such as Prince2 for designing, developing and implementing systems and ITIL for running and managing those systems? In fact, Cobit is a framework specifically developed for IT governance.

There are many definitions of IT governance (surprise, surprise), but I think the one from Van Grembergen and De Haes1 is most clear defines IT governance as "an integral part of corporate governance and addresses the definition and implementation of processes, structures and relational mechanisms in the organization that enable both business and IT people to execute their responsibilities in support of business/IT alignment and the creation of business value from IT enabled investments."

Although we have structures, jobs, processes and methodologies in place within the common practices of any organization, it doesn’t seem to be enough, and IT governance continues to demand special attention. Why is this the case?

First, an obvious observation is that IT and business strategies enabled by IT have become so important for the survival and growth of the average organization that it warrants all the attention, as would any topic of that magnitude. Second, compared to other business functions such as finance, IT may still be less mature – just as governance of teenagers takes more time than governing adults. But there is another reason in an area where IT may even have a leading position: Perhaps more than in any other business function, IT operates in a stakeholder network.

As with any other support organization, IT has all the other business departments as stakeholders. IT also often has the lead in external stakeholder management. There are many parties with which IT needs to work, such as in outsourcing, consulting partners, value chain integration and so forth. The moment other business functions, such as finance, start outsourcing their operations (e.g., to a shared service center) governance becomes a special concern too.

Similar to the way feudal societies had trouble with democratic structures, organizations – managed through the hierarchy – have trouble managing stakeholder networks. An organization is not a group of agents with a common goal, but a unique collaboration between stakeholders to serve the goals of all, which is very much like a democratic political structure of a country. The core of democracy is not that everyone gets to vote on everything, like in a direct democracy, or that everyone gets to vote for their leaders, like in an indirect democracy. That wouldn't work in a commercial organization. No, the core of democracy is to create a governance structure, or what is often called a social contract in political philosophy, that takes into account the needs of  many (the people) instead of the needs of a few (the nobility). In the words of Aristotle, the function of the state is to enable the development and happiness of the individual.

So perhaps, as the common theme here is how the old philosophers would look at contemporary issues in business and IT, we can learn something about IT governance when studying political philosophy. We turn to Plato.

Plato (427 BC - 347 BC) was a Greek philosopher, mathematician and the founder of the Academy in Athens, Greece. The Academy was the first university in the Western world. Plato's name is often combined with those of Socrates, Plato's master, and Aristotle, one of Plato's students, and they are seen as the most important contributors to the foundations of Western philosophy. In his book The Republic, Plato proves to be no fan of democracy. He felt democracy would lead to anarchy, and anarchy would lead  to tyranny. Democracy in those days wasn't defined as it is today. Democracy was characterized as a system in which all qualifying citizens could gather in the Assembly and vote on issues. Today we call that a direct democracy. Perhaps Switzerland and the state of California, with their system of referenda, come closest to a direct democracy. Plato felt that the wisdom of crowds would lead to average and short-term decisions, and that democracy would not offer a strong future-focused vision. Plato described how democratic self-government wouldn't work, comparing governing a state to being the captain of a ship:

"Imagine then a ship or a fleet in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but who is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and whose knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering – everyone is of the opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation …"

Plato felt that average citizens should not be allowed to run the state because they would not have the knowledge of economics, warfare, ethics and legal issues. Maybe this is one of the reasons why most modern societies are indirect democracies, where we vote for professional politicians who are supposed to have that knowledge and experience. If they turn out to be the wrong leaders, they get voted out. We agree with Plato's premise in business as well, but in a different way. Businesses leaders are not appointed by popular vote; in fact, it often takes a long career before someone moves into the C-level suite. In fact, Plato describes that career.

According to Plato, every child, male or female, should have the same education. This basic education should consist of gymnastics to train the body and music to feed the soul. After this basic education, children should be acquainted with mathematics, dialectics, and endurance. Endurance would consist of training on how to withstand  temptation and pain, for example. When the students reach age twenty, there would be a first selection of those who would pass to the next round. The ones that pass continue their education for another ten years, followed by another selection. The next round of training, an additional five years, would be in philosophy.  If you do the math, after those five years the remaining people are 35 years old, which is good but still not old and wise enough. For the remaining people, there is another 15 years in which they would be trained to lead in practical life. Today we would call that job rotation. Then, those who survive this last fifteen years would be appointed to senior leadership functions at the age of 50. This is not very different from the career path of professionals moving up the business hierarchy. It ensures that the vast majority of people who are not able to govern a business do not progress through all levels of training.

Plato also comments on the various tasks of the state. The basis is to supply food and other necessities to sustain its population. The state should also provide a defensive mechanism against enemies. Lastly, the state should govern, particularly through objective reasoning. It is amazing how this matches the typical IT stack. The IT organization supplies business applications and IT infrastructure to run the necessary processes. Then there is an IT operations layer, in which systems management, backups, security and other protective measures are taken, and then there is an analytic layer in the form of business intelligence systems.

Plato assigns different castes or classes for each task. There is the working class, consisting of skilled people of all trades. They represent the majority of society. However, soldiers need to protect the working class and all other members of society. And then there is the ruling class, who are rational, intelligent, self-controlled and well suited to make decisions for the community. Plato compares those three classes with part of the soul. The working class represents "appetite," the soldiers are the "spirit" and the governing class forms the "reason" of the soul.2
Again, it is possible to draw the parallel to the typical IT organization. The working class are the developers and specialists who bring in knowledge about different fields of IT. The administrators are the soldiers, as they protect the integrity of the data and the systems. Unfortunately, in business life, administrators have a slightly less heroic profile. But, in fact, this class is greatly expanding, following the IT trend of outsourcing activities. Outsourcing companies need to be managed as well, and complete outsourcing governance departments are established. The ruling class consists of the CIO, the IT managers and the analysts, who determine what the specialists and administrators should do next.

Plato had some other, more peculiar, views on the ideal state as well. Plato believed in a rather communistic and sectarian way that the soldiers should not have possessions, and that women and children were to be raised in common. Soldiers of the state should live together too, receiving no pay, just food. Families, children, slaves and possessions were for the working class. Soldiers should not have much to lose, or viewed from a different angle, should not have anything other than warfare to worry about.
Somehow I think most of us are pretty happy this vision has never become a reality, but there is a striking parallel with IT governance when discussing where the IT budget resides.
It is clear Plato would have frowned on the IT department managing its own budget. The best reason for IT to own its own budget is the belief that the people who have the most in-depth knowledge about IT, namely the IT department itself, are the best guarantee that the best decisions on how to spend the budget are taken. However, the moment IT owns the budget, IT itself, particularly when it acts as a service to the business,  has a vested interest and starts to protect the budget for the sake of the budget.

So what is the alternative? Should the specific lines of business – the IT "customers"– own the budget in a decentralized manner? After all, the lines of business are the subject of IT expenditures. Aligning customer requirements with the willingness to spend makes sure nothing unnecessary is being built, and that projects will get the proper attention. Projects will also be tightly managed by the business. Then again, Plato would be quick to point out, if the lines of business own the IT budget, short-termism is the result, full of tactical solutions and lacking an overall infrastructure. An architecturally sound landscape with economies of scale and a high level of reusability would be unlikely.

That means there is only one option left: having the budget managed by senior management, but there are some drawbacks there as well. There are many other priorities, and the current generation of CEOs is not as IT-literate as they should be.  Furthermore, IT decision making on this level would invite many political games, instead of what Plato envisioned: putting knowledge and reason in command.

Still, Plato would prefer having senior management decide, but based on solid IT knowledge and background. This should be fixed first. In The Republic, Plato wrote the following famous line:

"Until kings are philosophers and philosophers are kings, cities will never cease from ill."

Plato, the philosopher, feels that philosophers should be king, or – as we discussed already – the ruling class should have a solid background in philosophy.

Boy, would the enterprise architects love that. They would best qualify to be the CIOs of the future. In Plato's definition, philosophers are those who are capable of comprehending ideas, and are especially interested in the idea of good.3 The enterprise architects come closest to a philosophical view on the business. They have developed how the business structures should look, which controls are needed  and how the supporting IT should be architected. I bet that deep down many enterprise architects have felt they were the only ones who truly understood how the business is running, or at least have felt frustration when witnessing the decision makers in action, doing "silly things.”4

Plato is on their side. Plato particularly recommends studying abstract mathematics as a preparation for the abstract conception of good. Any enterprise architect would agree.

But there is more to IT leadership than understanding what is good and understanding the full business consequences of architectural choices. Sometimes being a CIO is a dirty job indeed. My next article will discuss that in more detail.

  1. Van Grembergen and De Haes' definition of IT Governance can be found on Wikipedia in the "Definitions" section of IT Governance.

  2. Plato briefly singles out traders as a group of people in society, and he is not very positive about them. For Plato, trade represented almost the lowest of activities. Software and hardware vendors might recognize that sentiment when negotiating deals with IT procurement professionals.

  3. “The idea of good" is something entirely different than "a good idea.” People tend to confuse the two all the time.

  4. In case you are an enterprise architect, and you catch yourself with the thought you are the only one who really gets it, ask yourself when was last time you negotiated a multiyear contract with a customer or supplier, taking customer requirements, your own profitability and revenue recognition regulations into account. Quickest way to wake up.

SOURCE: Plato and the Art of IT Governance

  • Frank BuytendijkFrank Buytendijk

    Frank's professional background in strategy, performance management and organizational behavior gives him a strong perspective across many domains in business and IT. He is an entertaining speaker at conferences all over the world, and was recently called an “intellectual provocateur” and described as “having an unusual warm tone of voice.” His work is frequently labeled as provocative, deep, truly original, and out of the box. More down to earth, his daughter once described it as “My daddy sits in airplanes, stands on stages, and tells jokes.” Frank is a former Gartner Research VP, and a seasoned IT executive. Frank is also a visiting fellow at Cranfield University School of Management, and author of various books, including Performance Leadership (McGraw-Hill, September 2008), and Dealing with Dilemmas (Wiley & Sons, August 2010). Frank's newest book, Socrates Reloaded, is now available and is highly recommended. Click here for more information on how to get your copy today.

    Editor's Note: More articles and a link to his popular blog are available in Frank's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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