Time for a Revolution in IT: Five Steps

Monday Jan 4th 2010 by Steve Andriole
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We're all tangled up in technologies, processes, standards, governance and deranged technology managers who report to paranoid business executives. Aren't we passed this by now?

Enough.

IT’s time for a revolution.

We’re all tangled up in technologies, processes, standards, governance and deranged technology managers who report to paranoid business executives. God bless the entrepreneurs who keep creating new technology that – unfortunately – more often than not confuse those expected to exploit IT for business value.

How about costs? While infrastructure technology continues to get cheaper, many of us are still paying ridiculous enterprise software licensing and maintenance fees. Perfect storm clouds are gathering – finally – but how will companies enter the cloud? Servers from Amazon?

And leadership? Who’s minding the store? A 50-plus data center veteran or a Gen X-er (or, better yet, a Gen Y-er) steeped in social media? What is “social media”? Are companies embracing that which they don’t understand – again – or are they avoiding that which they think they understand? Globalization is stressing every organizational structure on the planet. Are we responding appropriately to the decentralization of business?

Are we out of control? Pretty much. We’re still fighting stupid battles about governance, standardization, technology adoption, software delivery, hardware acquisition, wireless deployment and even compensation. Is this really all that hard? Please.

I have never seen so many flat learning curves in my life. After nearly thirty years in this business I cannot believe how little progress we’ve made optimizing business technology. I am aware of companies running multiple enterprise data base management platforms, multiple instances of multiple ERP systems and multiple global infrastructures. There are lots of companies still on social media search-and-destroy missions, trying their best to kill anything new, fun or strategic. Just as many companies still can’t find their customer data.

(All of that said, I also work with some companies that really get IT and have long since stopped forming circular firing squads.)

Business technology optimization is absolutely no different from healthcare reform. The delivery of cost-effective healthcare occurs in countless countries where universal coverage costs less than 5% of the gross domestic product (GDP), resulting in impressive performance rankings. In the US, we still don’t – even with the new legislation – deliver healthcare to all of our citizens. We continue to spend nearly 15% of our GDP on healthcare and have generated a solid 38th world performance ranking.

Is healthcare doable? I mean if Americans can’t do it, I guess it just can’t be done, right? Healthcare is obviously and easily doable. Just look around the world. All we have to do is remove the profit motive, regulate prescription drug prices and set prices for procedures – like everyone else does. But you have to want to do these things. You have to decide that making money from people’s misfortunes is wrong, that one of the few real responsibilities government has to its citizens is quality healthcare for all of its taxpayers.

The sad truth is that our politicians – bought and paid for by corporate lobbyists – have no interest in reforming the look or feel of the golden goose. Why should they?

What about IT?

Do we not have a set of best practices around the acquisition, deployment and support of information technology? Are these best practices hidden somewhere out of reach from technology managers and executives?

Have we forgotten how to write technology business cases, conduct cost-benefit analyses, calculate ROI or TCO or assess performance? I contend that – like healthcare reform – business technology optimization is very doable. Of course, we have to really want to do IT. So what’s the problem? IT is always about the people, the corporate culture, the senior management team and the stupid processes that simultaneously anger and pleasure the inmates who run the asylum.

Is it all hopeless? Not at all.

Here’s how the revolution begins.

1) IT’s About the People

You need smart, passionate people for your revolution. If the troops are tired, disenfranchised, cynical or just cashing a check then you will suffer the “Iraq/ Afghanistan effect”: trying to muster a solid army to fight for a cause it only half-way understands.

If the general feeling among the troops is that things are essentially OK then the chances of a successful revolution are non-existent.

This is your first test: if there’s no interest in a revolution then you have two choices: shut up or leave. But if there’s a lot of discontentment then the environment may be ripe for revolution. Gather the right people, get rid of the spies and sycophants, and develop your strategy and tactics with a core team of dedicated revolutionaries.

You will be surprised how many people feel the way you do. Remember, there is strength in numbers.

2) IT’s About the Culture

The second test is the corporate culture and the attitudes of the senior management team (SMT). If they are tired, rich, ready-to-retire, angry, clueless and/or punitive, then you have a real problem: it’s likely that there will be executions the moment you light the first fuse.

But if the SMT is shaky and the board of directors is worried, then there’s an opportunity to rethink organization and governance, adopt alternative X-as-a-service delivery models and empower the business with Web 2.0, social media and other technologies.

It’s essential that you assess the state of the management team as perceived by the stakeholders – the investors, the shareholders, the board of directors, the vendors and the corporate partners. If there’s wide and deep criticism of the job the SMT is doing, then a revolution is quite possible. In fact, it may well be welcomed by otherwise paralyzed stakeholders. If the light is green then by all means proceed.

3) IT’s About a Strategy

All revolutions need a strategy. What are the objectives? What, for example, should the IT organization look like after the revolution? What should the acquisition, deployment and support strategy look like?

Should X-as-a-service delivery models prevail? Should open source software play a role? Should technology be globally decentralized? In order to get somewhere we have to know (a) where we’ve been and (b) where we’re going – and why. If the revolutionaries can’t agree on what the post-revolutionary world should look like then the revolution will stall and then fail. Worse, the backlash will be brutal: most if not all of the revolutionaries will be executed.

4) IT’s About Partnerships

Nothing good happens in a vacuum. All revolutions need partners. In IT, the range of partners includes the revolutionaries themselves, board members, technology vendors, product and service providers and customers – among anyone and everyone that comprises your company’s ecosystem.

Reach out to them and keep them informed about what’s going to happen, how it will positively affect them, and how they might well be enlisted in a battle or two.

Here too you will find a lot of willing partners – if they’re already pretty disgusted with the way things have been going with the incumbents. But be careful here. There are spies everywhere. Make sure that the “partners” you enlist are not actually supporters of the status quo. Many people talk big but are really pretty small.

5) IT’s About Accountability

Successful coups and revolutions require accountability. Before-and-after metrics should be established to determine if the new regime is better (or worse) than the old one. Run for the hills if the performance data indicates that the new regime is only as good as or – God forbid – worse than – the old guard. They will hunt you down and kill you.

You have some choices here. If you live in a business technology insane asylum, you can just collect your check week after week, month after month, year after year. You can leave. You can become the resident-critic-without-teeth.

Or you can start a revolution. Job one is to assess the people, culture, leadership and stakeholders. If you find that nearly everyone thinks that the company sucks, that the corporate culture is about to implode, that the leadership is clueless and disrespected, and the major stakeholders think things have to change, then by all means start burying land mines.

But if there’s considerable support for the current regime – even if it makes no sense – then you might want to take your weapons somewhere else (or just keep cashing the checks). Just remember that the same guys who screwed up your company are the genetic cousins of the same guys who screwed up healthcare.

The good news is that insane companies generally don’t get people killed, so you can honker down, wait them out, leave or just retire. Too bad millions of Americans don’t have similar options when it comes to the health of their families. Put another way, in the final analysis IT doesn’t matter all that much when compared with problems like war, cancer or the environment. Maybe Nick Carr had IT right all along (though perhaps for the wrong reasons).

As the way old TV drama Hill Street Blues used to sign off – “be careful out there.” Revolutions can be fun and productive. They can also be dangerous.

Steve Andriole is the Thomas G. Labrecque Professor of Business at Villanova University where he conducts applied research in business technology convergence. He is also the co-founder of The Acentio Group, a new economy consortium that focuses on optimizing investments in information technology, executive education, Web 2.0, technology audits and pilot applications. He is formerly the Senior Vice President & Chief Technology Officer of Safeguard Scientifics, Inc. and the Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President for Technology Strategy at CIGNA Corporation. His career began at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency where he was the Director of Cybernetics Technology. He can be reached at stephen.andriole@villanova.edu.

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