The Baby and the IT Bathwater

Kevin Jones recently made the provocative proposal that some companies should consider dissolving IT altogether and disseminating its functions into their business units. Mark Thiele countered with the observation that, without addressing IT’s underlying ills, decentralization might just spread the disease. So what are we to do? Should we throw out the baby with the IT bathwater? I envision a solution that reconciles these perspectives, while at the same time going beyond them. In my opinion, the precise makeup of the org chart is less important than the nature of the service. As I’ve previously posted, we need to shift our perspective from “Information Technology” to “Digital Enablement.” Information technology is about managing a bunch of stuff. Digital enablement is about using a particular set of expertise to help the business succeed.

Proceeding from the latter perspective, IT continually strives to divert energy from low-level, commodity functions to high-level, value-added ones. It embraces cloud computing as an aid towards that end. It keeps commodity functions and resources in-house with regret, unless they address unique, business-specific needs. Instead of considering cloud solutions by asking “do we have to?”, IT asks “is there any reason we can’t?” In the latter case, IT actively drives cloud providers to improve their services in order to remove obstacles to adoption. It also seeks ways to remove obstacles by redefining the problem.

What does the newly energized IT organization look like? In my view, it looks a lot like an agency. Christian Reilly and Brian Gracely foresee a future where IT functions as a concierge, focused more on connecting the business to IT functionality than on directly delivering and controlling it. My only problem with the idea of IT-as-a-Concierge is that it implies passivity. The concierge patiently waits for guests, who know more or less what they want (a pleasant, nearby, not-too-expensive place to eat dinner) to ask for help. IT needs to be more proactive. It needs to go out into the business units in order to understand their needs. It needs to propose solutions; not just offer them up upon request. It needs to help move the business forward by identifying opportunities the business doesn’t even see.

Some question IT’s ability to succeed when “the business doesn’t know what it wants.” Developers and designers have long understood that users don’t understand their own needs. This trait is natural, and need not be considered a problem. Practices such as Agile and Design Thinking specifically address limitations in self-understanding in order to surface unexpected, innovative, truly valuable solutions. IT needs to adopt similar approaches. The future IT organization likely will employ fewer “hardware huggers” and more BA’s and Service Designers.

How does the CIO role change with this model? Does it go away entirely, or report to or even merge with the CMO? Again, the specific org chart structure is less important than the ability to provide a unique perspective and knowledge set. In the world of IT-as-agency, the CIO (or dare I suggest “Chief Digital Enablement Officer”) is responsible for understanding business and customer needs at the highest strategic level and communicating those needs within IT. Even more importantly, though, the CIO also is responsible for defining opportunities to drive the business forward through digital infusion, and for communicating those opportunities beyond IT.

To answer the question whether IT should remain centralized, or dissolve itself into the business, I think the answer is ‘yes.’ I don’t expect the need for in-house IT systems to disappear completely any time soon. Even in an enterprise where IT is highly consumerized, the IT organization has important expertise to contribute. It can help business units make wise use of cloud services, in terms of cost, efficiency, availability, security, etc.

The difference from current practice, though, is that, rather than doing things for people, IT helps people do things. To provide that service, IT needs to be out and about in the business, not to mention exposing itself to customers. Like any agency, IT can no longer be the department of ‘No,’ or ‘My Way or the Highway.’ Agencies that take that approach generally get fired. If nothing else, Kevin’s post illustrates the fact that people have started wondering whether they could/should fire IT. It’s up to us to reimagine ourselves in order to circumvent that outcome.

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