What value does information technology bring to businesses? Does IT have sufficient say at the executive or board levels? Is IT properly aligned with the business? What's the underlying purpose of IT in today's organizations?
If these questions sound familiar, it's because IT professionals have been asking them for decades, and they continue to populate headlines and conference agendas today. IT has long suffered from a form of identity crisis -- or more accurately, a value crisis -- and according to a growing number of IT leaders, we need to get over it.
"It's time we moved on from these soul-searching exercises," says Kerry Augustine, an IS director and the Director of Marketing for the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS). "They're becoming somewhat self-defeating."
What's behind the 'value' identity crisis and why is IT seemingly the only profession to be suffering from it? Why don't we hear lawyers or accountants questioning the value they bring to their companies? Much of the answer lies in the fact that IT has experienced a highly compressed evolution compared to others; what other professions have gone through over centuries, IT has experienced in less than 50 years.
In many respects, it's as if we've reached our awkward teenage years, where we need to look to our parents (CxOs, Boards) and older siblings (other professions) to help make the transition to adulthood.
Utility vs. Innovation
Central to many of the discussions about IT's value today is whether its underlying role is one of utility -- keeping the lights on -- or of innovation. Part of what we can learn from our older sibling professions -- and contrary to the thrust of many discussions on the topic -- is that the two are not mutually exclusive; utility does not have to come at the expense of innovation.
"It's not a question of one or the other -- it's a balance of both. You want to deliver innovation, but you've got to keep operations running," says Cindy Seibel, Director of Information Technology Services with the Calgary Board of Education.
"Teachers [at the Board] tell us, 'when I turn it on, it has to work'. But at the same time, they want room to experiment and innovate," she adds. "So what we offer in IT is standard and stable at the core, with room for teachers to personalize."
The notion of balancing utility and innovation is by no means limited to IT. As one CIO put it in a recent roundtable discussion, HR and Finance also need to do this. "I look to HR for innovation in how to deal with an aging workforce. I look to Finance to help us figure out how we're going to fund growth. If they're not doing that, they're the wrong people."
Another cause of IT's constant soul searching lies in the way systems are developed. On the one hand, making IT an executive priority and involving end-users in solutions development is a foundation of effective application design. But every IT executive knows that there's a flip side to this. The closer the end-user is to design and back-end processes, the harder things tend to be.
While it obviously won't work in every case, separating end-users from back-end processes is definitely one way to minimize the time, effort and pain involved in IT projects.
"It's a responsibility of IT to educate the business on how to leverage IT," says Augustine, "but back-end processes are best left in IT's court."
The point is, as a relatively new profession, IT offers boundless opportunities for soul searching. But if we want to take our place with the other established professions, we need to stop gazing at our navels and searching for the meaning of life. The answer is right in front of us. We simply need to start emulating our older sibling professions.
John Krpan is General Manager and Executive Vice President, AMS and Staff Augmentation, with IT and management consulting firm Sierra Systems.
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