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Technology gardening
by Robert Hillard

There is little that is guaranteed to soothe the stressed mind as much as a well-structured garden.  It brings together order and nature in a magic combination.  From a distance, the garden follows a clear plan that has probably been laid out by a landscape architect.  Up close, each garden bed logically leads to the next.  A good garden tells a story, describes its own purpose and combines aesthetics with function.

While the information technology profession often uses the building metaphor for its projects perhaps gardens might be more appropriate.  Where a building architect is operating to a clear project plan with a beginning, middle and end, the landscape architect may have a vision for an end but it will be many years before it can be fully realised with a long evolution along the way.  Before realising the landscape architect’s vision, the goals of the garden are almost certain to have changed in some way and the gardeners who are charged with planting, pruning and maintaining the garden will morph the plans as they learn more about what thrives in different part s of the garden and observe the preferences of the users of the garden (the public or the individual owners).

Perhaps the most frustrated members of the technology team are the architects.  They set standards and try to impose discipline across the enterprise.  They often feel like they have made a breakthrough with everyone agreeing to very sensible principles at the start of projects, such as adopting just one set of business intelligence tools, adhering to integration standards or consolidating all online activity through a single platform.  Unfortunately real world complexity conspires to cause the project team to rapidly break these agreements.

There is no doubt that information technology is the foundation of modern business.  With something so critical, compromising quality should not be an option.  It might be expected that senior executives would be prepared to invest and plan ahead.  Similarly, project managers are engaged with a goal in mind and yet are often forced to abandon the plans laid out by the very same information technology architects that they themselves engaged.

Increasingly organisations are looking to adopt more evolutionary approaches to technology projects.  The methods often encourage a high level outline of the project’s goals and then experiment or test different approaches in a series of structured mini-projects or “sprints”.  Perhaps adopting the gardening metaphor will lead information technology strategists to evolve the entire technology landscape across the enterprise leveraging both the techniques of agile methods combined with the principles of developing a good garden.

An enterprise approach to technology which adopts landscape gardening principles might think of vendor choices not in terms of a single standard but rather what will suit the needs of one area while retaining the aesthetic or integration needs of the whole landscape.  Decisions about system priorities might be expected to change over time as the business moves through its natural cycles, just as gardeners change their focus as the environment moves through good and bad seasons.

More than anything else, though, an organisation adopting the garden metaphor would embrace rather than fear user empowerment.  These organisations would seek to plant many technology seeds to find out what grows best and then be willing to prune or remove some of newly grown systems to keep the overall landscape in line with the vision.  In this model, users focused on their own little patch will create fertile or barren ground without putting the enterprise goals at risk.  Not everyone needs to understand the garden as a whole in order to be able to meaningfully contribute to an individual plant or tree.

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