The Power of Diagrams

A few weeks ago I went to meet Ben Lunt, IT Manager at Horizon Platforms near Wakefield. He was working out how best to represent their suite of IT systems so that it would make the subject easy for the senior management team in the company to understand and engage with. We started out with Ben’s technical diagram of servers, routers, and network links and transformed it into a picture of how the business functions are joined together by IT.

I really enjoyed being able to help Ben with this and it prompted me to put together my thoughts on how powerful diagrams can be when communicating complicated subject material.

And let’s face it, IT systems can sound very complicated. Especially when technical people get together to discuss them in project meetings, design sessions, or when they’re dealing with a service impacting incident. As well as having to be savvy with the terminology, all the product names and stacks of acronyms, it is often assumed that everyone is familiar with how the plethora of components (hardware, software, and applications) fit together to deliver a business service.

Imagine how difficult it would be for someone from outside IT to keep up with the conversation. Even a new member of the IT team might find it a struggle to work out what’s going on.

And if you’re an IT manager trying to present your strategic plans to the exec management in your business, you’ll not get very far if you do so in techno-babble.

Is producing diagrams a good use of time?

If you were taking apart a car engine to fit a replacement part, you’d probably use a something like a Haynes manual to make sure you were putting all the pieces back in the right places and in the right order. You’d also use the manual when sourcing the spare part. You might even take photographs during the dismantling steps as a reminder of how it is supposed to look as you reverse the process.

What do you think your chances of getting it all rebuilt correctly would be if you were relying on three friends verbally explaining it to you in the pub the previous evening?

The diagrams and pictures help to remove uncertainty. They flush out incorrect assumptions and misunderstandings. They reduce the potential for misinterpretation. They serve as an agreed reference point – a version of the truth. They put complicated things into context.

Most importantly, diagrams provide a focal point for everyone in the room and can be a significant help when you’re running a technical meeting.

And remember – once it’s been drawn, it can be used and shared many times.

What sort of diagram works best?

What diagram you draw will depend entirely on the audience and your intended purpose.

As referenced above, there are times when you will require a technical diagram. Something that shows how the IT components fit together will help to drive a systems design discussion. Technical diagrams are a major help when troubleshooting IT incidents, especially when the system is built on a complex infrastructure.

When presenting to business colleagues, your diagrams should illustrate how the business functions are delivered and how they fit together. Lead with terminology that the non-IT people will understand and know – show how the order management system links to the production and warehouse facilities. There is no room here for server names, IT acronyms, or IP addresses.

Here’s a couple of recent examples where I’ve used diagrams to good effect in different situations.

  • Mapping business processes at a charity to highlight which activities were largely automated and which were still very manual. This helped shape the strategic plan of action and the supporting business case.
  • Illustrating how the IT systems for a clothing company were linked across three locations helped to demonstrate the business continuity impact of key component failures and the implications of losing each site.

When I called in to see Ben at Horizon Platforms, we talked through the business process systems in use – including sales, fleet hire contracts, fleet management, customer relationship management. Ben was very appreciative of the guidance.

“At first, I was getting lost with how I wanted to show the IT systems. It was refreshing working with Brian which made me think about it in a different perspective that I hadn’t thought about.”

“When we sketched it out in a different way it became easier to visualise from a business perspective. It also highlighted some of the technology integration challenges I’m facing – challenges which will feed into how we develop an IT strategy that can deliver true benefits for Horizon Platforms.”

As you’ve probably gathered, I’m a big advocate of drawing diagrams to help convey how the IT landscape fits together and serves the business. And I can’t believe I’ve gone all the way through this article without saying “a picture paints a thousand words” … but it does!

Brian Lancaster is an Interim IT Manager and Consultant at BLMS