The Vanishing IT Department

The Vanishing IT Department

What's killing many IT departments is not talent shortages or offshore outsourcing. As one long-time CIO argues, it's laziness and lowered expectations.

The good news is, the CIO role is safe and will continue to thrive over the long term.

The bad news is that at most companies, the information technology department that many of us knew and all of us aspired to have is finished. In spite of what you might have heard, this is not a matter of available talent. Declining undergraduate enrolment in computer science and related fields is neither the cause nor the effect, but simply a convenient and utterly dopey excuse for this slow-motion train wreck. What is killing IT are lowered expectations, simplified missions and generously elastic notions of identity. One day soon you may wake up and find that just because your title says CIO and you're running a department, it doesn't mean you're running an IT department.

Here's what I mean. At the last CIO 100 conference in the US, one of the speakers made reference to the paradox of the Ship of Theseus, a reflection on how much change something can tolerate and still maintain its identity. You'll no doubt recall that Theseus was the guy who entered the labyrinth to slay the Minotaur. When he sailed back to Athens he received a hero's welcome, and his ship became famous by association, sailing in parades long after he died as a tribute to his grand achievement. In between the parades, a crew would take the ship on a tour of the Mediterranean and as they sailed, the ship would need a few repairs. After many years of voyaging, every piece of the ship, every plank, and every bit of tackle and rope was replaced until not a single original piece remained. And still every year the crew sailed the ship in the annual parades as Theseus's ship.

As it happens, the entire time the ship was sailing and making its repairs, a scavenger ship of exactly the same design, but in far worse shape, was following. As the Theseus crew members made repairs they would throw the old parts overboard, which the scavenger ship's crew scooped up and used to replace their ship's even older parts. Over the years, every piece of the scavenger ship, every plank, and every bit of tackle and rope was replaced with the discarded parts of Theseus's ship. So, who has Theseus's ship?

Bits and pieces of your department have already been thrown overboard. How many more before you don't have an IT department any more?

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