“A Marine is a Marine is a Marine

Not only do Marines never leave anybody behind, they know that the Marine who files the paperwork is as important as the Marine who flies the helicopter is as important at the Marine who cooks the meals.

What one Marine might be doing at any point in time may be more important to a mission than what any another Marine is doing at the same time (e.g. maintaining the readiness of a medical evac helicopter navigation system vs. touching up the paint on a Hummer), but it’s the criticalness of the process or system that’s the key distinction here.

We’d do well to keep this in mind when our organizations start confusing ‘mission critical systems’ with ‘mission critical people’ and God help the IT professionals who work with people who can’t or won’t distinguish between the two.

Repeat after me: mission critical systems? Absolutely. Mission critical people? I don’t think so.

Yes, there are things that any organization needs to be able to do faster/better than any other organization: if you work for an oil and gas company, you’re trusting the ‘mission critical’ systems that support the geologists, geophysicists, and engineers are the best and best supported in the business, because in these organizations, front line exploration work is ‘mission critical’. If you work for an airline, flying airplanes safely and efficiently is ‘mission critical’, and so is keeping the reservation systems up and running. If you’re in a Social Services agency, the work done by social workers are ‘mission critical’.

Once we’ve established that certain work is ‘critical’ (i.e. that which gives us competitive advantage), we have to make sure that this thinking doesn’t bleed into ‘special support’ for ‘special people’.

Yes, it makes sense to provide ‘round the clock’ support to some 24x 7 systems, but that doesn’t mean the people who operate these systems are any more (or any less) important than anyone else.

People are interchangeable — some do front-line work, some don’t, and when we start to use the term ‘mission critical people’ as a proxy for ‘mission critical systems’, we begin to breed the types that make unreasonable demands, who act like prima donnas, who complain loud and long when they don’t have the best and newest of everything: “We have to have it (it being a laptop, or a PDA, or a new cell phone, or round the clock support), and we have to have it right now — we’re mission critical — we’re a core competency!”

Core competency my elbow — that phrase is used entirely too often to justify unrealistic levels of support from IT people, and the acquisition of a ridiculous number of tech toys.

What’s worse is that these self-declared core competency types try to build their unrealistic expectations into service level agreements. Service level agreements for systems? Good idea. Service level agreements between groups of people (“You people will provide this level of support to my people”) are not. We’d do well to remember that all the background systems that support what an organization does — mission critical or not — are important too. They may not be as time sensitive (i.e. life and limb isn’t at risk if the HR system goes down for a day) but let’s see how important these systems are to those ‘core competency’ people when the payroll doesn’t get out on time.

So the next time someone pulls that ‘we need a service level agreement’ line on us, let’s ask ourselves if the request is to support a critical system (and then be very careful with the wording of said agreement at that), or just someone who thinks they can pull rank on the basis of being among those ‘blessed’ with a core competency designation.

— Hanley is an IS expert in Calgary. He can be reached at isguerrilla@hotmail.com.

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