Exfoliating dated IT assumptions

Exfoliating dated IT assumptions

Researchers at the IT Leadership Academy recently met with several groups, including leading IT practitioners in large and midmarket enterprises; progressive executives in federal, state and local government agencies; hiring managers at vendors; senior executives at IT service firms; deans of major business schools; presidents of community colleges; and strategic planners at staffing firms. The purpose: to ask about assumptions in their organizations that need to be exfoliated.

Here are three of the worst:

Assumption No. 1: Chargebacks are bad. One of the most toxic and widespread assumptions in many otherwise rational IT shops is the belief that installing a chargeback system for the true cost of IT is either too complicated or too fraught with political peril to be undertaken.

The dirty little secret of IT is that every CIO has a chargeback system -- that is, he knows what resources go in and what outputs come out. But is the IT leadership team comfortable with sharing that information with the rest of the enterprise?

Running an IT shop while keeping the rest of the organization in the dark regarding true costs and trade-offs is akin to Stalin micromanaging the Soviet economy. On paper, maybe it's a good idea. In practice, it's a total mess.

The ancient Greeks defined idiot as one who is totally self-contained. Technology decision-making can't be contained inside IT. The future belongs to enterprises that understand the costs and trade-offs underpinning their technology decisions.

Assumption No. 2: End users want to remain ignorant about technology. Many IT leaders (particularly baby boomers) believe that business-side executives don't have the time for or interest in learning about IT. Remember: Ignorance is absence of awareness, not absence of intellect.

We don't need to transform business executives into technology rock stars. But they need to be able to contribute to technology decision-making. This is the true art of next-generation IT leadership -- figuring out what the suits need to know and then designing an effective communication strategy to get them to know it. Business-side leaders need to develop good judgment about technology. The trick is figuring out how to let them do this without learning the hard way, through failed projects or missed opportunities.

Assumption No. 3: You don't have to aggressively manage your career. Many of the people I most admire in this industry believe it's enough to be smart, have reasonably well-developed social and communication skills, and be knowledgeable about the business. And this used to be more than enough. But we now live in an age when people are augmenting natural gifts with biomechanical and pharmacological tools and using social network/brand building and social science techniques to increase influence and performance. In the future, you are going to have to be better than you! This takes time and thought.

Great organizations -- companies like McDonald's under the brilliant stewardship of CIO David Weick -- recognize that high performers want to realize their full potential. Such companies, which include Shell, GE and SAS Institute, help their people manage their careers and create training and executive development programs to do just that.

Thornton A. May is a longtime industry observer, management consultant and commentator. Contact him at

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