It’s time for me to speak up. Not that I haven’t before, here and here. But sometimes I just have to shake my head. I read certain IT-related articles on the web, or tweets by some colleagues, and they’re so out of sync with IT reality that I feel like it’s Opposite Day.
Here’s what I mean. Let’s look closely at the latest item of this ilk that has spurred my head to swivel: this rather stunning recent Forbes interview with Mark McDonald, group vice president and head of research at Gartner Executive Programs. At core, McDonald is touting and praising, and with much reasonable-sounding eloquence and assurance, an abandonment of common long-standing lessons in IT. In fact, such an abandonment is being presented as the only path to goodness, success, and truth; traditional areas of focus for IT are deprecated as being either of lesser importance, or even as the veritable hallmark of a clearly backward CIO who just doesn’t get the new order.
This isn’t to pick on Gartner alone. As I said, similar views can be found every day. Sometimes this view is couched as IT needing to take a “journey” through different “generations” — where the stated ultimate goal is to actually to eliminate the need for an IT strategy altogether. In the Gartner interview, the terminology used, however murkily, is that of CIOs being “rich” or “poor”. Underlying this deprecating and generally anti-IT attitude is the belief (explicitly stated by Gartner) that business people are superior to technologists: “It’s always easier to teach a business person technology than a technology person business.”
So to Gartner, not only is the very educability of the technology person at question, but these hapless tunnel-visioned technologists are even going about it all the wrong way: for example, by misguidedly focusing on properly managing IT resources: “The poor IT organizations believe they create value by properly managing IT resources.” If they emphasize enabling the business, that’s wrong too: “If you define your IT organization as enabling the business, that’s an indication you’re headed in the poorer direction.” And, it turns out, the real secret to success is to throw over the IT people altogether when it comes to management: “the real determinant [of a “rich” CIO] is that many of [the “rich” CIOs] come straight out of business.” And again, it’s not just Gartner; elsewhere on the web, we can find similar statements, such as “many [IT] projects disappoint because they’re ‘too focused on timescale and budget’.”
If you step back from being sucked in by this golden shimmer of an IT-less future, devoid of drudgery and tedium and all the traditional IT messiness, these haughty, ludicrous statements pretty much rebut themselves. As one Twitter contact of mine put it in reaction, “It’s only hubris which allows one functional area (IT included) to think the other’s domain is simple.”
And hubris is the right word here. Yes, much about the underlying recommendations sounds reasonable on the surface: we should emphasize business value above all, and we need to focus on enhancing the revenue, profits, and value of the company. Those specific points are inarguable, to be sure. But it’s quite revealing, the way that the discussion is typically framed: it’s both enormously judgmental and dismissive, using words like “rich” vs. “poor”, or it makes grandiose claims that “with innovative and enterprising CIO leadership, a company’s strategy for investing in change will come to fruition and not apparently be about IT at all!” Or the statement that “running IT is not a valuable use of [the next generation of CIOs’] time, talents and energy”.
The obvious implication there, of course, is that if one still believes in the critical (indeed, strategic) importance of a well-managed IT function, even amidst a necessary focus on business value, then one clearly isn’t “the next generation” of CIO. This isn’t simply arrogant; it’s flat-out wrongheaded and dangerous. It leaves hard-learned practical lessons behind while presenting a fine-sounding, lofty, but ultimately fuzzy theory that promises to lift the CIO (and by extension the company) above the standard oh-so-trivial concerns of delivery and technology. It redefines basic words in order to depict a kind of transcendence of the mundane and dreary. Dismissing the importance of basic IT facets such as proper management of resources, or adherence to time and budget, or technology itself, is akin to pitches that promise weight loss without dieting, or language learning without memorization; such pitches feed on the fears of the already discouraged. Let me be utterly blunt: it’s snake oil; I don’t buy it, and neither should you.
Recommended take-aways for the CEO and other senior management:
- Don’t leave the valuable lessons of the past behind in your desire to evolve to some kind of higher plane in IT. The lessons still matter; in fact, they matter more than ever.
- Rather than striving to leave technology behind as a lesser concern, look for ways to integrate it and leverage it in everything the company does, centralizing and standardizing those things that matter as you go.
- Recognize and extend what technologists bring to the table, rather than pushing them back into their own ghetto and belittling their contributions and concerns.
- Don’t reject the need to carefully manage IT resources at a senior level. Despite what you may be told by masters of theory, those resources really don’t just manage themselves, and the risks involved in their mismanagement have become greater, not lesser. Does anyone really need to debate this?
- Continue to insist that IT spend wisely (and continue to focus) on both new work and ongoing operations. The potential for financial mismanagement, if covered by a blanket excuse of “oh, we’re focusing on value now” is simply huge; it’s unwise and unnecessary to shrug that risk off as passé, or to relegate its oversight completely to junior managers.
In this day and age, the health, revenue, and growth of your company quite likely depend on the degree to which it can successfully leverage technology, both in a day-to-day sense and for strategic initiatives. Effective strategy is critical, but excellence in operational execution can often be a key differentiator. Above all, and for either, it’s not the time to step away from thinking that technology matters.