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Infrastrcture
the things we take for granted

Ubiquity, Volume 2002 Issue June, June 18, 2002 | BY Espen Andersen 

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Infrastructure: The Things We Take for Granted
By Espen Andersen


What it is, what it does, what it doesn't



"It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by copybooks and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them."
Alfred North Whitehead

"When elevators are running really well, people do not notice them our objective is to go unnoticed." Bob Smith, COO, Otis Elevator
(Stoddard and McFarlan 1986)

In early 2001, I had a telephone conversation with a senior manager in a major (as in "one of the world's largest") oil company. We discussed a number of issues, and he wanted me to send him some information, so I asked for his email address. After a moment's hesitation, he told me that he did not have access to outside email at work, but he did have a private Internet account -- and I could use that. The exact phrase he used was "external e-mail is not part of our infrastructure".

Aside from my astonishment that a major company could choose to do without external e-mail, the conversation got me thinking about the word infrastructure. What does it really mean, and what does it mean to manage it? I once spent considerable time trying to define what is infrastructure and what is not -- information technology infrastructure, that is. I tried a number of different ways to come up with reliable criteria for what is infrastructure and what is not: Technical definitions (i.e., "infrastructure consists of networks and servers and commonly available equipment such as printers,") financial (i.e., infrastructure is anything corporate will pay for or support without a specific justification,") or even facetious ("infrastructure is anything I can't get funded any other way.")

What it is

In the end I decided that for me infrastructure was what I could take for granted, what was there without asking. If you will, the things that surprise you by their absence rather than their existence.

An example: I frequently do presentations at public or in-company meetings and conferences. Ten years ago, I always used plastic overheads, albeit generated by computer. I experimented with portable projectors (including some very early screens to put on top of the overhead projector) but the cost, size and quality of the projectors made plastic so much better. As time went on and projectors got better, I started asking companies if they had them, and would bring my own if they didn't. If they had one, I would arrive early to test whether it would work with my laptop. As time went on, projectors became ubiquitous and the interfaces stable, and I stopped printing out every presentation and only took along some more generic slides as a last, desperate backup in case of technical failure. Nowadays, I don't do that, either, as most organizations have plenty of computer projectors, at least one of which will work.

There are a number of advantages to thinking about infrastructure this way:

  • it is not static, and infrastructure (and companies) need to evolve in synch with their surroundings
  • it is not based on technology, but on technology uses and user perceptions
  • it makes it easier to understand and calculate investments by incorporating user time and activities to think about infrastructure
  • it focuses on quality of service rather than technical content, as a projector or e-mail connection is not infrastructure if it works so badly that you have to have specific knowledge of it
  • it promotes parsimony in features and eloquence in interoperability
Managing infrastructure then becomes, to paraphrase Whitehead, an exercise in creating an environment where you can perform an increasing number of things without having to think about how you do them. Often it becomes a question of whether new technology should be tailored to the organization's first application of it -- or introduced directly as a new generic capability, i.e., into the infrastructure. Infrastructure becomes less a question of what technology you have than how it is managed, including whether there is enough capacity for your needs -- be they typical or not.

What it does

Do I know Oscar Wilde? No, but I know someone who can get his fax number for you.
"Garreth" in "Four Weddings and a Funeral"

When technology is good enough, widespread and common enough that it does not attract attention in itself, it has become infrastructure. This does not mean it is global -- as any US business traveler in Europe has found, practically everybody in Europe has a mobile phone with low prices and excellent coverage. Consequently, payphones and 800-numbers are few and far between. In the US, mobile phones are still, at least for travel, an expensive fashion accouterment rather than a road warrior's link to the world -- for that, you have voice mail, 800 numbers and calling cards.

I live in Norway, a country with extremely high mobile phone penetration. When I go home from work, I often call my wife to ask whether I should stop by the supermarket on my way home. If so, I go to the store, attach my hands-free earphone, and then call my wife. She positions herself in front of our refrigerator. We then have a meaningful marital interchange on what to have for dinner and whether the asparagus is in season and should we get the family-size bottle of softening liquid?

Woody Allen has, reportedly, referred to people like us as "connectivity assholes". That's what I would feel like but for being far from the only one using a mobile phone for domestic micro-coordination. There are men (mostly) and women cruising the aisles talking to thin air all over, the thin cable from ear to pocket separating those conversing from those hallucinating. When Bluetooth comes along and does away with cables, we won't even have that. If you asked any one of those people, some years ago, whether they would talk to their children or spouses about household minutiae, sometimes across continents, over a mobile phone or even email, they would look at you as if you where trying to sell them something. Yet the technology has changed our behavior, and you literally wonder what you did before it.

Home from shopping, my wife and I watched an English television series called "Heartbeat." This series portrays a young policeman in 1960s Yorkshire and his physician wife, chasing criminals and performing minor medical miracles in an appropriately nostalgic rural setting. It must be nostalgic for the scriptwriters, too, because most of the time, the excitement is built along the lines of "will X be able to communicate with Y in time to save Z?" My wife commented that this series had to be set in the 60s -- nowadays, the protagonist can always pick up the mobile phone and call for help. Since then, I can't help noticing that for the real action in most suspense movies to begin, the good guy must first lose the cell phone.

Telephones, elevators, hanging files, copying machines and email have all made the transition from novelty through exclusivity to infrastructure, in the process changing organizational life. The telephone, as Peter Drucker has pointed out, begot the centralized headquarters, remote from the manufacturing plant. The elevator made possible the skyscraper, hanging files the corporate memo (Yates 1989), the copying machine (or, rather, the practice of copying paper) a torrent of paper in the form of information sharing. Email has enabled networked corporations and a proliferation of intellectual mercenaries (Malone and Rockart 1991) and their arenas (such as, indeed, ACM Ubiquity). The Web has created a sense that information is at your fingertip -- at least some information, most often in Google -- and that the bank is always open. Personal, portable information and communications technology -- PDAs, cellphones, GPS and to a certain extent laptops -- are rapidly being taken for granted, so much so that it deeply surprised me when I found that the business school I work for does not allow students to use their laptops at exams.

What it doesn't

The bandsaw occupied a whole room. It was the only tool he had ever seen with infrastructure. [ . . .]Anyway, the most noteworthy thing about the bandsaw was that you could cut anything with it and not only did it do the job quickly and coolly but it didn't seem to notice that it was doing anything. It wasn't even aware that a human being was sliding a great big chunk of stuff through it. It never slowed down. Never heated up. Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon, p. 270 (perhaps intentionally misinterpreted)

The danger of seeing infrastructure as what you can take for granted is qualitative: You, your organization and/or society may take it for granted because of its ubiquity, but the infrastructure may not be of sufficient quality to be depended upon. This may be because it is not available (such as the oil company email) or because it isn't good enough.

This can have disastrous results. A train accident in Norway two years ago saw a dispatch supervisor desperately trying to alert a locomotive engineer to a runaway approaching train by dialing him on his GSM cell phone. However, the engineer had a different cell phone that day -- and, anyway, cell phone coverage was spotty along the desolate stretch of track the train was on. As was rightly pointed out by the telephone company later, cell phone technology may be good, but it was never intended or designed for time-critical information. For that, you need hardened, purpose-built internal radio systems -- and at least one alternative system as well. The train company had neglected to install this because GSM was working well for chitchat and gave a sense of easy communications -- when you are not in a hurry, a broken connection is no big deal.

To justifiably be taken for granted, the technology needs to be consciously managed up to a level of quality where it can be depended upon -- with stress tolerances, safety margins, obvious failure signs, policing, speed limits and road signs. These things evolve much more slowly than the capability of the technology itself -- and lack of them may hamper the technology from becoming infrastructure in the first place. Funny enough, proper management of the technology is then often a case of highlighting its shortcomings rather than its potential.

The balance is difficult and not in your hands. The de-emailed oil company had management that didn't want external email for fear of viruses and security leaks. I wonder whether they had calculated the cost of customers, employees and other stakeholders improvising around their inside-out definition of infrastructure, and held that up against the technical costs. No company is an island -- and it is in what technology it considers infrastructure, not what technology it has, that you should judge the IT capabilities of an organization and its managers.

References:

Drucker, P. F. (1988). "The Coming of the New Organization." Harvard Business Review (January-February): 45-53.
Malone, T. W. and J. F. Rockart (1991). "Computers, Networks and the Corporation." Scientific American (September): 128-136.
Stephenson, N. (1999). Cryptonomicon. New York, HarperCollins.
Stoddard, D. and F. W. McFarlan (1986). Otisline. Boston, MA, Harvard Business School.
Yates, J. (1989). Control through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Espen Andersen (self@espen.com) is associate professor with the Department of Strategy at the Norwegian School of Management BI (www.bi.no), and a research affiliate and European research director with The Concours Group (www.concoursgroup.com), an international IT and management research and consulting organization. Based in Oslo, Norway, he has done research on topics such as mobile business, electronic commerce, knowledge management, digital business strategy and CIO-CEO interaction.


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