March 25, 2008
News & Opinion: Excerpt from The IT Value Stack
The following excerpt is from the introduction to The IT Value Stack: A Boardroom Guide to IT Leadership by Ade McCormack, a book that tackles the subject of IT value realisation head on and provides a model to help CIOs and business leaders maximize the return on their IT investment.
Introduction: What's IT All About?
"Leadership has a harder job to do than just choose sides. It must bring sides together."
Jesse Jackson, US Civil Rights Leader
Welcome to The IT Value Stack - A Boardroom Guide to IT Leadership. Before we get into the content proper I have provided some insights into why I have written this book. This opening chapter also details the book's structure.
I have my Reasons
Having worked in the IT sector for more than two decades, I have made a number of observations that are in many ways interrelated:
- The IT industry has a poor delivery record.
- Business people do not know what IT people are talking about. And this doesn't seem to bother IT people.
- Users are generally suspicious of IT people.
- Executives are frustrated that they cannot measure whether they are getting good value from their IT investment.
- There is a perception that all problems involving IT are ipso facto the fault of the IT department.
- The IT industry suffers from low self-esteem.
- Many businesses do not know what business they are in. I will dwell on these in the next chapter.
Information Technology is not a Black Box
Whilst IT is an exciting (possibly too exciting) industry, it has a number of critical problems, which are both perceived and real. These problems may appear parochial to those dwelling beyond the IT department periphery. However, modern businesses are increasingly dependent on IT. As IT becomes part of the organisational DNA, these so-called IT problems will become everyone's problem. Thus, IT is too important to compartmentalise, and so does not fit neatly onto the organisational chart. Treating IT as a "black box" is not an option. Even aligning this black box with the business is not enough.
Information Technology has become Important
For many organisations IT was no more strategic than catering services. "Nobody died today, so why does the catering manager want to talk to me?" bellows the CEO. So it is with the CIO, "The email works so why does he want to talk to me?"
However, the world has changed. Users are in the driving seat. Regulatory compliance lingers like a dark cloud. The threats extend beyond the traditional boundaries. Global competition, cyber crime and terrorism require different rules of engagement. Tactics are the new strategy. We hear of on demand, real-time, Darwinian, agile and other market-responsive terms to describe businesses. Information technology isn't an optional extra, it is a condition of entry to most markets. It is the enabler of business sustainability. The CEOs who don't get that are either in the wrong job or have done some calculations in respect of their retirement date and this reality dawning on the shareholders.
Business and the public sector/society are increasingly underpinned by IT. Unfortunately, many organisations are unaware of this. They can be identified by the lack of IT representation at board level. And those that do recognise the importance of IT to their survival are generally vexed by the poor delivery/value and the generally dysfunctional relationship between the users and the IT department.
A Deserved Reputation
Through my experiences working in the roles of technologist, management consultant, CIO coach, user and buyer of technology services, I believe I can see where the problems lie, and what needs to be done to resolve them. To that end I have developed a framework that encompasses what I believe to be good practice.
I feel strongly about this. I am not proud to be working for an industry that is held in such low esteem. Much of IT's reputation is sadly deserved. Reasons include:
- Socially inept technologists who seem incapable of communicating with the users.
- Unscrupulous sales people who, through a toxic combination of not quite knowing what they sell coupled with aggressive sales targets, will confidently tell users what is best for them.
- Technology providers that regard delivery as a by-product of their primary business, which appears to be sales.
- A mystifying deluge of user-unfriendly terminology.
- A lack of standardisation, both in respect of technology and terminology.
Every industry has elements of the above. If we look at it from a Bell curve distribution perspective, such occurrences are usually at the extreme. For IT, these reasons represent the norm, rather than the extremes. That has to change.
In defense of the IT industry, it is young and to some extent pubescent. So its behaviour can possibly be attributed to "hormonal effects" that are beyond its control. Well, it is time for the IT industry to grow up. Again IT is not a fashion accessory for twenty-first century organisations. The value they extract from IT will determine their success. Users expect IT to deliver; if IT fails to deliver then this will have profound consequences on the global economy.
The IT industry needs to get its act together. This is both a warning and an opportunity; particularly for CIOs who want to influence the business, and for technologists who recognise the link between user happiness and their career progression.
Without wanting to sound too visionary, I had a road to Damascus (actually to St Bart's hospital) experience circa 20 years ago, which involved a prolonged stay in hospital and four operations. Prior to this my IT experience involved some Fortran programming during my Astrophysics degree, and three years of real-time embedded software engineering at a large engineering company. This would understandably suggest I was a "hardcore techie." Anyway, my reason for hospitalisation was that I broke (snapped) my forearm cleanly during a judo demonstration (!). During my stay(s) in hospital I was struck by the skill, knowledge and caring manner of the medical staff. Nurses and doctors inspired confidence, managed expectations well and were consistently knowledgeable about their trade. It was at this point I decided that, despite the lack of professional standards in the IT industry (anybody can call themselves a programmer or a CIO), I would endeavour to be more professional. Specifically, in respect of my industry knowledge, which up to that point extended as far as my day job's minimum requirements. But I was also determined to improve my own professional bedside manner in terms of how I engaged with the users.
Over the years it became apparent that my initial observation, which was really me noting a need for personal improvement, was a problem endemic to the IT industry.
Twenty years later my experiences of working with organisations at every level, across many industries, on both sides of the business/IT divide, have given me the evidence I needed to make what appear to be sweeping, and somewhat harsh, generalisations about the IT industry. But my objective in writing this book is to provide a positive way forward that will benefit IT-centric organisations, and make the IT industry one that people are proud to work in. An attractive industry will attract the best talent, and nothing less will be needed, given the importance that IT is increasingly playing in business and society.
But the IT industry doesn't exist to give IT people jobs. We are here to serve organisations and society. So ultimately those that extract value from their new technology investment will determine the industry's success.
Excerpted from The IT Value Stack: A Boardroom Guide to IT Leadership by Ade McCormack, published by John Wiley & Sons; 2007.
Download the first two chapters of The IT Value Stack.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.