I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

I work for ThoughtWorks, the global leader in software delivery and consulting.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

IT's Identity Crisis

IT lacks a consistent definition of exactly what it does vis-à-vis its organisational peers.

  • Accounting is the language of business.
  • Finance is how business gets capital.
  • Marketing creates customers.
  • Sales brings them in.
  • Operations are how a business creates value.

IT does … what, exactly? Creates new business offerings? Retains customers? Is how business gets done? What do these really mean?

All too often they end up meaning, “would you like fries with that?” When that happens, IT devolves into a cost to be contained, a nuisance to be tolerated.

This ambiguity of purpose is made worse by the fact that IT brings both a language and set of priorities that are of no real interest to the business (e.g., technical "issues"). It’s no wonder IT struggles to justify its annual spend: it has a fundamental identity crisis.

This creates some rather bizarre side effects.

One is that a lot of businesses put IT in a narrow box, giving it a rudimentary but clear definition as a utility that operates at a predictable, consistent cost. The price of this simplification is that IT cannot perform as a competitive capability, but so it goes. Hard costs ("annual IT spend was reduced through strategic sourcing contracts") are easier to present to shareholders than soft language ("IT gives us a transformational capability.") Having clear line of sight as to where IT spend is going trumps vague promises of competitive advantage.

Another are the proliferation of IT firms on the sell side with very odd-sounding offerings: "We radically transform business to invent and reinvent them.” Yes, of course you do. Good luck with that.

But the real tragedy of IT’s identity crisis is that it is significantly responsible for two of its core problems.

One is that IT serves the wrong master (technology) at the cost of the right one (the business). Debates over platforms and tools often overshadow discussions of business need. This is particularly disasterous when the business is drawn in to mitigate a resolution. This is why IT typically lacks a seat at the top table of the business.

Another is that IT lacks both quantity of management practitioners and maturity of management practices. Despite involvement in every part of the business, generally speaking IT is not a destination employer for management talent, certainly not to the extent that other business disciplines are. To wit: finance typically attracts top business talent, while more often than not IT promotes engineers or mathematicians with little business education or acumen into positions of management.

Application development exemplifies this. Purchased solutions such as accounting systems or office tools have become business utilities. However, custom applications that support custom operations from which businesses derive competitive advantage defy a utility model. There’s been effort made to bring commodity thinking into appdev, to a point where we’ve created buying patterns that commoditise people. But skills – especially at the high-end of IT – are not ubiquitous and portable: one firm’s technical architect is another’s junior developer. We’ve abstracted what we’re buying into roles and definitions, and in so doing we've made it cheaper to get what we’re buying, but we’re not buying what we really need.

What we’re buying in appdev, of course, is capability. That’s hard to define. But then again, so is IT in the first place.

So having asked the question, what’s the answer? What is IT relative to its peer group of business disciplines?

IT maximises return on invested capital.

IT investments are made for one reason only: efficiency. We can execute operations (e.g., define and trade exotic financial instruments or run a manufacturing plant), comply with regulation, win and retain customers, and keep track of revenue and cash flows all by hand if we must. IT investments may make many opportunities possible that would otherwise not be economically viable, and it may make the burden of regulation less costly to bear, but it’s an efficiency game. This means IT maximises returns by quickly delivering solutions that create business efficiency.

By extension, it also means that IT should be a destination discipline for business talent. Capital that needs to sweat the assets will do so through efficiency of operations. In most businesses, efficiency will be realised substantially through IT, because IT has a hand in every aspect of a business. Any representative of that capital (e.g., the board, the CEO, the CFO) looking for ways to maximise returns will start by leveraging IT. This requires not technology leadership from IT, but business leadership.

So when capital comes calling for that leadership, IT needs to be prepared with an answer. That answer isn't that IT solves "business technology" problems: arguably, they're all contrived anyway. It isn't that IT achieves the minimum cost-per-role-staffed relative to its industry peers: that's abdication of leadership masquerading as fiduciary responsibility. Nor is it to reinvent business: there are still far more low tech than high tech solutions to business problems. IT must answer in terms specific to what it can deliver that creates business efficiency and therefore returns. This is how it fulfills its organisational role to maximise return on invested capital.

Any other answer misses the point.