Countering a disturbing bandwagon: rich vs. poor IT organizations

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.


  1. Steve Romero, IT Governance Evangelist says

    I can’t tell you how thankful I am that you chose to speak up. I’m beyond delighted. I just hope everyone who reads the Forbes article reads this brilliant post. I left a comment on the Forbes post bidding readers to do so.

    Steve Romero, IT Governance Evangelist

  2. To state that, “It’s always easier to teach a business person technology than a technology person business,” is sophmoric. It’s precisely because of the lack of understanding and appreciation that Business and IT have, one for the other, that we continue to experience such high rates of project failure and frustration.

    As enterprise projects continue to increase in complexity, and timelines continue to be compressed, and resources continue to be overloaded, our success rate with projects, and the quality of systems and applications, is destined to fall even further.

    The challenges ahead for enterprise software and software-related projects demand that Business and IT finally realize that neither can succeed without the other.

    Project Portfolio Truth #1 – The causes of project failure are easy to diagnose and simple to understand.

  3. Thanks, Bill, for commenting. I obviously agree with your view that the one statement is sophomoric at best, and concur that we need to point to ways to find increased mutual understanding and appreciation between businessfolk and IT.

    I can’t agree, though, with your Project Portfolio Truth as stated. The causes of project failure are actually myriad, intertwined, and often fraught with politics. They are usually anything but simple. I wrote a whole post about this, in fact: “Complexity Isn’t Simple: Multiple Causes of IT Failure.” See

  4. Extremely pragmatic post as always. Though not a CIO myself, I can’t help but equate these seemingly ethereal goals for “rich” CIOs with the way of “architect astronauts” around the middle of this past decade. I would imagine a CIO would be on his or her way out if he or she were pontificating on “richness” while production systems were crashing and budget was vanishing on last minute, ill negotiated licensing deals, etc.

  5. Thanks, John: as you know, I completely agree. As I’ve written before, “excellence in tactical delivery is the ante that gets you to the strategic table.” And thanks for the reminder about “architecture astronauts,” a classic Joel Spolsky meme that everyone should review. ( He writes, “That’s one sure tip-off to the fact that you’re being assaulted by an Architecture Astronaut: the incredible amount of bombast; the heroic, utopian grandiloquence; the boastfulness; the complete lack of reality. And people buy it! The business press goes wild!”
    In other words, the comparison you make here is quite apt.

  6. I’m trying to think of another functional area where neglect of day-to-day operational excellence would be promoted as a qualification for higher corporate office.

    Can you imagine: “It’s always easier to teach a business person engineering than an engineer business.”

    Or, “Running the finance department is not a valuable use of the CFO’s time, talents and energy”.

    Rather, I think this sort of thinking should lead to a pink slip.

  7. Frank,
    To play devil’s advocate a bit: I actually think that the people I was writing about would object to being depicted as proposing neglect of day-to-day operational excellence. Instead, they simply believe that that responsibility should be delegated downward, and that focusing on it too much distracts away from a CIO’s “higher calling” to strategy, essentially.

    That said, I still vehemently disagree with them. Operational excellence is important enough, and elusive enough in most companies, to merit strong attention from C-level management, not a shoulder shrug and delegation to junior lieutenants. So I’m objecting, primarily, to the dismissiveness and trivializing that I see going on here, because I think it’s harmful, in the end, to strategy.

    Strategy and operational excellence: do both. Don’t pick one or the other.

    Thanks for commenting!

  8. Mark McDonald says

    Peter, I would like to thank you for your comments on the Forbes interview. I went back through the interview and could not find where I say that IT management was no longer necessary or that it did not matter. The ‘obvious implication’ that you ascribe to me is not one that I believe I made or hinted at because it’s not what I believe.

    If talking about the changes needed to create more business results is as you say, “an abandonment of common long-standing lessons in IT.” That is not the point. I tried to make it clear that IT organizations that concentrate and focus their efforts on creating business value are more effective or ‘richer’ than others. The rich vs poor characterization is an unfortunate but clear differentiation.

    ‘Rich and poor’ organizations alike need strong IT management and execution. Rich IT organizations do not throw caution to the wind and management discipline out the door; in fact they build on it. The interview pointed out that: “One of the things that has been very surprising out of the economic crisis is that effective leaders and good management, no matter where they came from, are getting a chance to shine through.” I believe that does more than imply that solid management matters and is important to everyone.

    I did imply is that delivering on time, on budget and on schedule is no longer enough in the face of volatility, the need for results, etc. “If you adopt a view where you’re not responsible for results but you can prove that you have lower total cost of ownership, that’s a handicap.” That is a characteristic of what the interview called ‘poor’ organizations. That is a difference requires rather than absolves companies from effective IT management.

    These are differences based on survey work not my hubris or any other motivation. The survey work started three years ago and involves more than 1,500 CIOs each year. We looked at differences between enterprise and IT effectiveness. The result was simplified into the idea of ‘rich and poor’ for the interview, but its based on data not FUD or a desire to muddy the waters.

    Regarding the issue of it being easier to teach business people technology, that observation comes from CIOs and IT executives. When I ask them why they feel that way, they point out that having a technical understanding of how the business works is not the same as knowing the business. You can point out that many ‘business’ managers share that same situation. I agree that this is an ‘old saw’ argument and it was not the focus of the interview. The interview mentioned, “Growing up in technology does not preclude you from running a rich organization, though. They’re a little more prevalent than people give them credit for.” I agree that sounds dismissive to technologists. That was not my intent.

    Companies have increasing choice in how they provision their IT and that choice requires IT doing more than just its job. Not because it is the wrong job, but that when given a choice executives will choose IT that raises business performance that builds on IT discipline not just IT discipline itself.

    My comments were intended to advance a dialogue based on working with CIOs and IT executives not out of arrogance or a desire to downplay the challenges facing IT professionals. You have characterized my comments as callous, prideful and other personal characterizations. That is unfortunate as that tone was not my intent. The comments were intended to point out the changes we face and that delivering against those challenges will require a response on that builds on rather than destroys what we have done in the past.

  9. Mark, thanks for commenting. There’s quite a bit in your answer to respond to, so I’ll focus on just the most important points here, the ones that stem specifically from your interview rather than the parts of my post that actually referenced other sources I was reacting to.

    First and foremost, I’ve worked actively throughout my career to break down the barriers between IT and business. Leadership requires being blunt on occasion, especially about key principles, so I will be blunt here: breaking down these barriers is an ongoing and important struggle, and I don’t like it when I see it undermined.

    Language matters: in particular, sweeping generalizations, especially divisive ones, do real harm. Using very qualitative terms like “rich” and “poor” to divide people into different categories is not only obnoxious, it’s harmful. It blurs what we should be talking about.

    Especially, saying unequivocally that it’s “always” easier to teach a business person technology than the reverse is not only ludicrous, it’s offensive, incendiary, and prima facie untrue by dint of being so absolute. You yourself used the word “always”, and you pointing now to unnamed CIOs as the alleged source seems disingenuous, avoiding taking responsibility for an unsupportable broad claim. As a CIO/CTO, I’ve long observed people on both sides who excel in the language and goals of the other domain. In fact, IT business analysts and PMs in particular typically understand business processes and the intersection of goals/strategies/practicalities as well as anyone in the company. They’re the boots on the ground, and few companies could do projects without them. In short, many/most IT people actually thrive in and contribute meaningfully to the business domain. And any technology executive worth his or her salt knows that.

    Equally, I’ve worked with many business people who have deep understanding and insight into how technology can be leveraged for business value. They too are critical to success. Sad to say, I’ve also at times encountered people in both domains (up to and including the CEO level) with ignorance and tunnel vision of the other (and, interestingly, often exhibiting the same kind of dismissiveness towards that “other” that I’m decrying here).

    My point: let’s not generalize about whole groups of people. Frankly, doing so tends to scream a certain lack of real-world experience, not to mention empathy.

    Moreover, roundly declaring that some “rich” CIOs can actually come from technology (“it’s more prevalent than people give them credit for”, you allow) is an old rhetorical trick sometimes referred to as damning with faint praise. Regardless of what you think you intended, your statement comes across as haughty, dismissive, and, again, divisive. It’s saying one thing but implying another. Using a more extreme example, it smacks of the people in 2008 who pointed out with astonishment how “clean and articulate” candidate Barack Obama was. Language matters.

    If we want to emphasize business value, and we all do, let’s stop declaring that some of us don’t, let alone that some of us probably can’t. Let’s begin at home, by explicitly and actively valuing the different perspectives brought to the organization by varied and deep backgrounds. That, indeed, would truly be a “rich” approach.

  10. I enjoyed your response to Mark.

    On the single point of how CIOs are betrayed as “business” clots I have always been at a loss to understand WHO ARE these other “business people” in the business who apparently “know the business” better than their peer executives and managers in the IT group? Often these others are far less exposed and far less aware of the whole systems approach to business and in this case I don’t mean IT systems. In any case there is a wide spectrum of business competent people within IT and in all the other areas of the business, and it’s the combination of these talents which makes the business hum – not the business superiority of the non-IT people.

  11. Well said! Thanks for commenting.


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