Code for America is a nonprofit that focuses on reforming government services to make them simple, easy to use, and accessible for all Americans. Founded...by Andrew Turner
June 12, 2019
Is your organization’s IT system operationally mature, and is it application-centric? In today’s digital landscape, achieving both of these are crucial for the success of any serious IT operation — both at the enterprise level and in the context of smaller organizations.
What is operational maturity? It is a general measure of the overall consistency, reliability, resilience, coherence, and sophistication of an IT system at the levels of management, design, and operation.
There have been several attempts to define the stages of operational maturity, including Gartner’s five-level system, and Microsoft’s four-level Infrastructure Optimization Model. Most models of operational maturity assume or imply that the levels of maturity are equivalent to the stages of growth within a company or an IT operation — with good reason. Operational maturity generally is the result of learning through experience and necessity, and of wisdom accumulated over time. The five levels listed below draw roughly on both the Gartner and Microsoft models:
From a mythological standpoint, this is the era of primeval chaos, when heroes and monsters fought endless battles, and everyday people were lucky if they could survive from one moment to the next. In the IT world, managers, support staff and developers all struggle in a genuinely heroic way to prevent or extinguish disasters and keep systems running on a day-to-day (or even minute-to-minute) basis. Compatibility at the level of protocols, standards, and interfaces for both hardware and software is haphazard at best, if not entirely non-existent. Elements of the infrastructure may be obsolete, and inadequate for the demands of the system. The failure rate is high, and the time and resources of IT staff are largely tied up in keeping everything operational.
At this point, IT staff is still reacting, for the most part, maintaining and repairing the system on an ad-hoc basis. Managers are aware of the importance of eventually improving the IT infrastructure, even if they aren’t in a position to embark on a coherent plan of upgrade.
Here, support staff and management are largely in control, rather than simply reacting. There has been enough investment in infrastructure so that the system is adequate to meet the organization’s day-to-day needs. Standards and policies governing operation, service, security, and documentation are in place and being followed.
IT is operating on a proactive basis with regard to specific organizational needs and objectives. End user needs are not only being met, but also anticipated. There is a comprehensive program of infrastructure upgrade, improvement, and expansion, and the system is well-maintained, with well-defined processes around incident management and response.
IT is in an active, forward-looking strategic partnership with top management, and it provides major competitive advantages to the organization as a whole. At this level, there is typically a high degree of automation, and the system is extremely reliable, allowing IT management to concentrate on initiatives for expansion and innovation. Agile teams are empowered to safely and rapidly deploy new innovations oriented around optimizing the customer experience. Both future plans and current build-out focus on enhancing the value and scope of the business and the services that it provides.
It’s easy to see that Levels 1 and 2 are basically about survival, and leave little room for anything else. The foundations for operational maturity are laid out at Level 3. It is only at Levels 4 and 5, when IT is able to move from being a support service to a forward-looking asset, that operational maturity becomes a reality.
One of the key factors in the transition from the stable support-service role to a proactive IT system is the adoption of an application-centric approach. Early on, IT is concerned with applications, of course, but its focus is strongly functional — keeping key software operating according to specifications. A truly application-centric approach goes beyond basic functional considerations and concentrates on such things as the quality and breadth of services delivered to the user. Application-centric IT is cloud-based and composable, making it easier to deliver services to the user, independent of underlying hardware infrastructure.
Whether it is cloud-based or more closely tied to infrastructure, an application-centric IT strategy is critical to becoming more operationally mature. By definition, operational maturity is application-centric; it focuses on the value that can be delivered to both the enterprise and the individual employee by providing comprehensive, optimum-quality digital services.
What does the journey look like in achieving operational maturity? Ultimately, of course, that depends to a considerable degree on the current state of your IT operations and infrastructure.
If the day-to-day reality for your IT department is centered around survival and emergency response, you can start by acknowledging your support staff for being the heroes that they are, then mapping out a basic strategy for attaining bare-bones stability. Even if you’re in no position to acquire the resources that you need, it is important to be prepared to seize the moment if the opportunity arises.
If you have a stable, reasonably well-functioning infrastructure, the next step is expanding your focus from maintaining the system to adding value to the organization as a whole. This can involve a shift in thinking on the part of IT management and staff alike. The good news, however, is that if you are at the level where your infrastructure is stable and IT performance is adequate, the move to operational maturity will largely entail a shift towards tighter cross-functional transparency and collaboration, rather than a struggle to acquire resources.
Operational maturity, then, really is no mystery. It is merely a matter of growing into a full partnership with the business and its goals, when your infrastructure is sufficiently stable and functional to allow you to look beyond day-to-day operations. It’s a natural stage of growth for a company that realizes IT operations should not be a cost center, but rather a source of innovation.