The End of IT: Questions And Answers
At the end of 2015, I wrote a column called, “Why It’s Time To Say Goodbye To IT.” In that column, I argued that there’s something wrong with IT; that most IT is perpetually at war with business units; that “security experts” turn into “how to disable the business unit”; and that the model of “super hero IT”, where IT positions itself as somehow superior to everyone else and can be a rescuer is fundamentally dysfunctional.
I stand by that. There are IT organizations that are exceptions, but for the most part, we would be better off tossing legacy IT in the trash and reincarnating it as “Digital Services”, which would combine a mix of technology, marketing, and customer service skills, with a focus on collaboration.
My column incited a great deal of conversation, both in the United States, and as far away as Russia. Thought leaders in both the US and Russia to challenged me on these concepts and asked for elaboration. Below are two sets of questions and my responses.
Born In The USA Eric Jackson, a US-based experienced startup technologist and civic technologist with experience at Dell and Quest Software (and, might I add, my Russian translator), started off the barrage of questions. He said, “the big questions that arise for me from the article are about ‘how.’ One way, of course, is to fire everybody in IT (and probably everybody else in the organization) and start over. However, assuming that idea won’t fly:”
How do you get existing IT staff to think of themselves as collaborators with or, maybe even better, people who empower their colleagues on the business side?
Eric, I think it’s all about leadership. My favorite leadership framework, “The Leadership Challenge” insists that leaders must “model the way”. So, my return question is, “is the chief of the tribe actually collaborating?” If so, collaboration is much more likely. If not, collaboration probably won’t happen. If the CxO is acting right, that is, modeling the way, I’m betting that the right type of collaboration and empowerment will also happen with staff. I have written before that we won’t get to digital until we have “digital” employees. The change in behavior must happen both from the “top” of the organization as well as in rank-and-file.
How do you get business staff to rethink the role of IT in the business and their own role with respect to IT?
Challenge business staff to stop exhibiting a “learned helplessness”. Ask them if they think that using technology is part of their role. Inevitably, they will say “yes.” Then the question is, “what parts of technology can you take on?” As I said in my previous column, we’re going to get nowhere fast if business staff continues to do dopey stuff like ask IT to change inkjet cartridges or even install a simple app on their mobile device.
Selecting which parts of technology is appropriate for business staff to handle is kind of like choosing a vehicle. Many of us rise to the occasion when it is time to select a new car, even though we might not be able to fix an engine. We know that when the engine breaks, we’ll have to consult a technologist, but for the most part, even as non-technologists, we can pick a vehicle with features that makes sense for us, although we might have a mechanic inspect the vehicle prior to purchase to make sure that there are no ugly surprises.
To bring that back to IT, on the application side, there’s generally no reason for an analyst to be involved in an app selection, although there might be a need for an analyst to vet whether a given app has the appropriate governance or data sovereignty features. IT has a role, but it’s a far less dopey and far more valuable one.
How do you get buy-in and sustained support from management or, even better, how do you get them starting to create their own vision around IT-enabled change?
This gets to the core of the matter: again, companies will not become digital until the employees, including the executives, adopt digital age attitudes and techniques.
Again, the question is “how.” I think in many instances, this will be a Darwinian process: those CEOs who think digitally and who understand disruption will naturally lead their organizations to better places. In other cases, boards and directors will select new CEOs, perhaps those who have demonstrated an understanding of both business and the new digital age.
I am not sanguine about a superhero CIO somehow convincing an old-school CEO to adopt digital age practices.
From Russia, With Love
Oleg Vainberg, a Russian business trainer, wrote to me:
Many CEOs believe that PMI, PMBok, AFW, Prince2 and other acronyms can save their organizations. But project methodologies are not a silver bullet. And I fear that good ideas will be discredited by greedy consultants who promise to solve all the organization’s problems by installing a new and very expensive PM-system and a brave CIO who promises the same thing.
Right on, Oleg! I agree, totally. Frameworks are powerful, but let’s not put the cart before the horse. Frameworks should something that assists powerful leadership, but they are not a substitute for powerful leadership. All too often, the organization spends a lot of money on consultants who trot in their consulting framework – whether it is ITIL, COBiT, or their own custom framework.
Everyone gets excited, and everyone gets a mug, or a T-shirt, or (if you’ve spent a lot of money) a backpack.
But then, the consultant doesn’t take the business environment into account, or if the consultant doesn’t spend adequate time assessing conditions before applying the framework, it’s a little like a painter who shows up and doesn’t clean the surface or apply primer: that new coat of paint is going to peel off sooner rather than later.
And that is indeed what happens in situations like this. The consultant disappears, and the new practices stick around (sometimes) for perhaps a month or two. Then people get busy. They get into survival mode. And they revert back to their “quickest, most natural” ways of working.
The major consideration that I recommend taking into account before hiring any consultant is this: IT is not a tech business; it is a people business. Any successful CIO will tell you that. Success in pushing the business agenda generally comes from dedicated people who commit to business progress. Yes, many times it is through technology, but the main event is business progress. Great technologists are quick to throw out a given technology when it becomes apparent that it does not fit.
So, frameworks are great, but my major question of any consultant isn’t “what framework do you use,” but rather, “how effective have you been with your last 10 clients, and can I talk to them?” If the answer is “no,” move on.
Many companies conflate project management with change management. They are convinced that if they manage their projects they can sleep peacefully and without bothering with change management. Aren’t both needed?
Of course. Project management keeps track of progress on modules, tasks, schedule, and budget. Change management is needed when you’re looking to win hearts and minds. You need both.
There is no “organizational change.” There’s just lots of individuals changing. So a focus on the how a project is going to affect individual employees is not only important, it is critical. Indeed, change management expert Mary Lynn Manns once told me that the ways that individuals are treated go so far as to determine the success or failure of projects at organizations.
I agree that project management and change management are needed. But let me expand on that question a bit. Project discipline is also needed.
Project discipline means that the executive involved is willing and able to identify resources available, compare that against what resources are needed to attack a given project portfolio, and then to identify what’s NOT going to get done.
This can be anathema in some organizations, where every project that comes down the pipeline is considered as “the most important project.” But that’s simply not true. Every project portfolio must be “force ranked”, and every organization needs a consolidated Gantt chart that represents activity in every business unit. Rigorous deferral of projects and deletion of projects must occur in order for effective project and change management to occur. When project discipline doesn’t exist, it means that the people doing the project and change management are overwhelmed, and can’t adequately focus on anything.
This last concept doesn’t seem terribly digital, until you consider that the whole idea of digital is to transform your business. Then, you realize that without freeing up time and resources to focus on digital transformation, it won’t happen. So, project discipline is one of the primary gateways through which digital transformation happens.