Certified – So you think you can dance?

Learn the Steps or Feel the Beat?
Everyone who ever attended event night at one of the major software vendors’ user conferences knows, “Real IT people don’t dance” (or should I say “IT people don’t really dance”). Yet I plan to use a dance analogy when discussing the various best practice frameworks and methods we IT people like to get certified in. Frameworks and methods like (here we go): ITIL, CobIT, Prince2,PMbok, RUP, Tickit, TOGAF, etc.Did you ever wonder why there is a world championship for ballroom dancing, but not one for individual dances such as the Waltz, the Foxtrot or the Tango? I bet you never did. But actually there are only two championship categories, Standard and Latin. (source: www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballroom_dance).

I guess the reason is that if you can only do one dance (like the one you learned for your wedding party) you’re not really considered a dancer. Now, just like the previously mentioned IT methods, these dances are distinctly different. However, they do share a standard vocabulary, standard exams and common framework of reference.

Now in Holland, if we have two people with a joint idea they start an association (or maybe a “coffee”-shop). And if two guys across the river have a similar idea, they start one too. Of course in our Dutch melting pot of cultures, we have historically had a good reason for all these separate associations: one was Catholic, one reformed, one Protestant, one Lutheran, one Jewish and one typically atheist (a.k.a. communist/socialist). But what is our excuse in IT to have so many?

There are some promising signs we are coming to our senses in IT. Maybe the credit crunch crisis has some benefit after all? The PMI (member wise one of the largest bodies) is looking over the wall, by participating in Agile2009, presenting at Fusion09 and even attending the Gartner PPM summit. CobIT and ITIL have published guidance on how they best work together. The DSDM Consortium Benelux is now also the Agile Consortium i.o. And a relatively new movement like Lean is bridging the very different worlds (or should we rather say different galaxies) of IT development and IT operations.

Should we, in that case, not also strive for integral certifications, having people with a balanced knowledge across several related topics? The least it would do is cater for shorter business cards (for the few people with more acronyms behind their name than there are letters in the alphabet).

What Would Such an Integral Certification Look Like?
For sure it would not only include IT subjects. I happened to be one of the first people in Holland to receive a Masters in “Managerial Information Sciences” (BIK) Mind you, this was back in the eighties. We already had several technical IT studies (like informatics and digital electronics) but this was the first study aimed at managing (and not building) IT. The curriculum was managed by the economic faculty and included subjects like accounting, marketing and production management, but also borrowed heavily from other disciplines like Law (business, international and information law), Informatics (computer sciences, programming, systems theory) and philosophy and psychology. The last two were expected to have a positive impact as IT – and especially IT management – is about people. Being an academic study, any practical skills (like project management) were of course completely absent from the curriculum.

Needless to say “Managerial Information Sciences” was a varied and interesting study, which delivered generalists. Not people who do one task particularly well, but people who understand and oversee the big picture and bring the different constituencies together. Basically it prepared me perfectly for the world of Cloud Computing, where technical details and skills become less and less important. Unfortunately this was twenty years before anyone even was using the word Cloud. Don’t worry – I managed to pick up some specific skills (like blogging ;-)) later on.

So You Think You Can Dance?
This brings me to the main question of this blog post, how do you certify that somebody “got it”. In other words, how do you judge whether someone indeed can dance? One thing is sure, you don’t determine it by asking him or her for the definition of the foxtrot’s basic turn or reverse weave. And it is beyond me why anyone would think we should ask for such definitions in an ITIL exam. The true test of good learning is that you can apply it years or even decades later, often in situations you never imagined and to solve problems it never was intended for. That is the difference between learning a trick – like a monkey – and true knowledge: a frame of reference you can apply to different situations. That’s why the idea of adopt & adapt for any best practice or body of knowledge is so essential.

Globally there are two distinctly different schools of thought around this. One is that you describe the intent, and the receiver makes his own decisions based on what he feels will best accommodate the intent. The other one is that you describe in detail what the receiver is to do or not to do. An accounting example: European rules say that the financial books should reflect the true state of an organization’s financial situation. While North American rules say “You shall not have special entities” (SOX rule added after Enron) and thy shalled not use Ponzi schemes to pay existing investors using investments from new entrants (expect that rule to be added or at least rephrased soon). Needles to say the second list of rules will be longer, easier to circumvent (if it does not explicitly say it is forbidden, it is allowed) and less effective.

Another example: the early versions of quality standard ISO9000 stated that practices and processes should be documented and people should adhere to these written procedures. So if an organisation wrote down that “whoever picks up the phone decides on discounts”, and people indeed worked that way, then they got an ISO 9000 certification. And if you ever did mandatory computer based ethics training you surely answered questions like “Accepting gifts is not allowed for legal, compliance and financial reasons.” Name three reasons why you should not accept gifts?” Wow, we became a lot more ethical through that training!

Our IT frameworks and methods are not only too fragmented (as discussed earlier), but somehow they also seem to be becoming more and more mechanical (tricks instead of knowledge). Looking at some of the comments this week on the ITIL V3 refresh (there are hundreds of comments out there) and reading about inconsistencies in definitions which apparently caused people to fail exams (seriously!) ITIL also seems to have fallen into this “tricky” trap. As described earlier, good knowledge in my view is not only adopted but also adapted. Maybe the upcoming refresh can be blessing in disguise, as it can get us back to an adapt approach. After all the best dancers are not the ones that stick to the steps, but the ones that move to the beat.

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