ATHENS, GREECE — The Parthenon stands on the fields of the Acropolis overlooking this ancient, modern city. Built some 2,500 years ago during the height of Athens’ power and influence, its age and commanding architectural grace and sophistication inspire a sense of awe that requires presence, not mere description. It stood more or less intact until 1687 when a Venetian artillery shell exploded the Turkish ammunition dump stored in its heart, which should give you a healthy dose of respect for its builders.
We can only wonder whether our best structures will last even a fraction of that time to inspire awe among our own successors. The ancient Athenians, lacking our finely tuned understanding of economics, built the Parthenon as well as they could, not merely as well as they could cost-justify.
We in IT work in more ephemeral materials than marble, but even our own modest efforts persist far longer than we expect, or even prefer. Our own legacies … systems … outlast at least the employment of their builders, stubbornly resisting attempts to replace them.
Why are they so hard to replace? They are, after all, just software, aren’t they? Well, no, they aren’t. They, along with such items as factories, warehouses, and the knowledge and experience of non-transient employees, form an organization’s infrastructure — the basic foundational framework on which an organization is built. It’s an overused term these days, but one whose meaning is worth preserving.
Infrastructure, we’re told, is strategic, but it’s deeper than strategy. A company’s infrastructure is its soul if you think in such metaphysical terms. If you’re more hard-nosed, it defines both enablers and constraints — a company can change strategies more easily than infrastructure, but the each company’s infrastructure predisposes it to some strategies while creating severe constraints that inhibit others.
Yeah, yeah, buddy, but how does this affect me today? Deeply and subtly, that’s how. Take stock of your existing infrastructure, what it enables and what it inhibits. It’s part of what a CIO or CTO brings to discussions of company strategy. More, when you’re planning new major systems or system replacements, drive the discussion beyond specific process requirements to explore which future strategies it will enable and inhibit.
It’s fashionable to talk about the compression of business cycles these days, but companies that are in business for the long haul understand that underneath all the nimbleness of rapid change must be an underlying stability.
Let the Parthenon be your inspiration.