What’s Real in IT?

It’s a curious time in the land of corporate IT. On the one hand, information technology has never been more strategic, never more at the heart of the value a business creates. Yet not only has IT failed to pick up any of the glow, it seems ever more often to be cast as the bad guy or as the hapless idiot that business innovators simply have to work around.

Reality_Checkpoint_full

Reality Checkpoint

Why is this? Didn’t they get the memo that they’re supposed to be aligning with the business? Are they just dragging their feet, protecting their turf? Are they trying, but failing, unable to adjust to the speed and complexity of the modern world?

I’ve no doubt there are plenty of examples of IT doing all that, but I also have to attend to my own experience. Most of the CIOs and IT managers I’ve talked to are hard-working, smart, and very focused on supporting the business the best way they know how. Most of the IT staff I’ve met love technology and are excited about what they could bring to the organization. It’s very hard for me to believe that such a pervasive issue is simply due to stupidity or bad faith.

In fact, I believe there is a structural problem that is already evident in the formulation: align IT with the business. It’s hard to be against alignment, but what does it actually mean? I think what it really means is this: I’m going to do my thing over here and you’re going to do your thing over there, but we’ll make sure that my thing is pointed in the same direction as your thing so we’re supporting rather than fighting each other.

I find that a little hard to get enthusiastic about.

A few months ago I fell in love with something Clay Shirky said about innovation in education: “If you think about our stock keeping inside the university, there are seven big constructs: class, course, grade, credit, degree, department, major. Not one of them is real. They’re all just how we do it. Here’s what’s real: Students are real. Knowing things is real. Being able to do things is real. People will find alternate ways to teach those things. That’s where the really disruptive stuff comes from.”

Think about it. How much of corporate IT today is just how we do it? Are IT departments and storage teams and network admins real? How about the things they work with? Are servers and SANs and networks real? Are apps real? Are the change management processes and security protocols that we use real? Think deeply about any piece of it and you may begin to suspect as I do that none of it is real. It’s all just how we do it.

So what’s real in corporate IT? I think the answer is quite clear:

  • Selling stuff is real.
  • Building and maintaining relationships with customers and partners is real.
  • Conceiving and building innovative products is real.
  • Managing risk and squeezing out operational waste is real.

In other words, the only things that are real in IT are the things that are real for the business. IT doesn’t need to “align” with the business, it needs to be the business, to take as its primary concerns exactly and only those things that concern the business as a whole.

How much difference can this kind of change in thinking make? I think that’s evident in the conversation at VMworld last year between Marc Andreessen and Pat Gelsinger. When Gelsinger bragged that virtualization has helped IT move the ratio of current operations and maintenance to innovation and new service creation from 70:30 to “closer to 60:40, on its way to his stated goal of 50:50”, Andreessen responded that for companies he works with the ratio is more like 1:99. Utterly naive? Perhaps. Certainly Kurt Marko is right that large organizations can’t be benchmarked against a 10-person start-up. But I also agree with a colleague who considers that 50:50 target to be nothing less than an indictment of a bankrupt way of thinking about IT.

I would love to conclude this post with a convenient list of the 7 ways IT organizations can be the business, but of course it’s not so easy as that. I do believe that there is an important place for IT specialists and I also believe that that place will look very different from the way it looks today. I will be reflecting further on this in future posts, more in the spirit of inquiry and fostering conversation than as a dump of any supposed expertise of my own. But it is my experience that the frame we use matters deeply, that it determines which questions we are able to ask and so either limits or opens up the range of interesting answers available to us.

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