Saturday, 7 November 2009

The tragedy of tactical vs. strategic solutions

I've noticed lately an increased tendency for the so-called "Tactical Solutions" in big organizations. Those are usually focusing their IS efforts around a few key systems, termed the "Strategic" ones. Strategic is synonym of big, complex and ambitious.

I've always heard the term "tactical solution" used to denote something that was put together quickly, without paying too much attention to the strategic aspects of an organization. Its data model does not try to encompass every possible process in the world, and its functionality is a fit for purpose for the existing business process, without taking into account the expected changes introduced by the business in the future. It's something built  knowing that it is going to be replaced in the near future by the all encompassing, strategic application, but solves now today's problem.

Fact is, the all encompassing, strategic application does not always arrive. Well, in fact, it's quite likely that it will never arrive. Two are the strongest contributing factors:

Plans are never completely executed: forget about five year long plans, face it. Nobody in any organization even remotely knows what they will be doing in three years time. Plans change as the economic environment changes, as competition changes, as legislation changes , as technology changes and as boards of directors change. When I see one of those five year long plans, I always do as if I accept them and cannot but admire the lack of grounding in reality that the people that make them and those that believe them have.

Complex solutions are likely to fail: the more complex and ambitious the strategic solution is, the more it is likely to fail to deliver. This happens also outside IS and is a inevitable side effect of having to deal with a complex problem. It's a fact. Complex development fails, at a much higher rate than simpler development. So even if people sticks to the plan and do their best to execute them, there is a built-in high probability of failure in those three to five year plans.

If you think I'm exagerating, I've seen tactical solutions that were intended to last 12 months being used for five years. And did the strategic solution arrived after five years? No, the tactical solution was replaced by another tactical solution, yes, you guessed right, intended to last only 12 months.

Of course, this is an extreme example, and I'm ready to admit that there are organizations (very few) that are actually able to stick to the plan and execute it during three to five years. But rarely the tactical solution is effectively replaced. Similar to the demise of dinosaurs, the tactical solution lower size and complexity allows it to change and adapt much faster and better to the environment than the monolithic and big strategic solution. And the point is, the "tactical solution" ends up playing a key role in the application landscape, and thus becomes strategic. As with any strategic system, it ends having to comply with the same requirements as its bigger brothers. It has to be fault tolerant, it has to scale up, it has to have change control, it has to be changed to adapt to business requirements and it has to be auditable.

What? You're not able to build those attributes into your tactical solution? Didn't you think about those requirements while building it and it is now heniuosly expensive to do it? Well done, you built actually what is a tactical solution. Instead, what if your tactical solution is fault tolerant, can scale up, is under change control, is easily changed to fit new requirements and is auditable? Congratulations, you built an strategic solution much cheaper and quicker than the strategic solution is going to be built.

Whatever the result, it's time to stop using the term "tactical solution" as something quick and dirty developed for the short term and instead start describing it as what they really are. Like the Ubuntu joke (Ubuntu is an ancient African word that means "I don't know how to install Debian") "Tactical Solution" means "I don't have time for the big guys to tackle my problem and I'm solving it myself"

Just take care of making it strategic while building it.

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