The question of, “Does IT matter” has been responsible for pages and pages of argument, both suggesting it does and it does not. It is interesting in its own right that the question remains present in general conversation. Nicholas Carr is probably tickled pink that is book title continues to generate interest (and royalties, I suspect).
Getting Rid of IT
I was moved to blog after spotting yet another article on the same topic in Monday’s copy (September 19th, 2022) of the Wall Street Journal. The article was called, “Get rid of the IT department? Some people think otherwise”. It was inside the C-Suit Strategies periodical. It was based on an earlier article (It’s time to get rid of the IT department) written before by Joe Peppard.
Now to be clear, the original article and this new one was not really about whether IT matters. But the message played on that emotive and eye-catching angle. The original premise of the first article and this new update is that IT as a centralized function is not very useful, and that to realize more value from ‘IT’, it should be embedded instead in business functions. The point being the marketing folks, as an example, know more about what they need than some IT specialist that sits in a central team, remote from that business need.
I love the premise and I love the article. But the hype around shutting down ‘IT’ is getting in the way. Our own research speaks to the real argument hiding in these articles. And the core of the real argument goes to the definition of “IT”. For that we have to go back to Nicholas Carr.
Does IT Matter, Really?
His premise was that when certain IT-enabled work becomes standardized and commoditized, they would be less valuable. This is of course totally obvious. Mr. Carr decided to hype the idea that ‘IT’ no longer mattered as a whole, since ‘IT’ was now so widely available to all. His spin was popular, but over simplified. Some parts of the work that goes by the name of ‘IT’ had tended to commoditized status by the time he wrote is book, but much of “IT” had not. Over the years much technology does through the exact same lifecycle. Duh.
But if you know anything about ‘IT’ you would know that in reality we are being lazy and we really should refer to something more akin to information and technology, or even information, communications and technology. ICT is in fact what many economists use to be more precise. But our own industry has gotten lazy, and that laziness clouds (pun intended) the real point. IT is not one thing or one kind of work. So while some must by definition evolve to commoditized status, some won’t.
Look at the cloud. Infrastructure as a Service, or IaaS, is as close to that commoditized argument from Mr.Carr. Compute and storage is relatively available and cheap. But what data you use, what analytics you develop, and what decisions or business processes you follow, is closer to the opportunity for unique, differentiated value-add. That is where Software as a Service (SaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS) play a stronger role. This is why I have said before that the real battle for the most important parts of the Cloud remain in the future: The Battle for Cloud Shifts to Applications and Analytics from Infrastructure.
Putting IT in its Rightful Place
In summarizing Mr. Pepperd’s article he is suggesting, rightly, that some elements of “IT” are more value-generating if people in business functions can use it directly. This is not the same point that Mr. Carr was making but the headline to sell the copy was similar: Shut down IT. When business knowledge and speed is needed, that IT-enabled work should be local to the skills and need. Think of self-service analytics, or maybe supply chain data steward (governance), or perhaps data engineering (data management) roles.
But any effort to source such capability at the edge of a business will necessarily lead to risk and increased costs. How many other different models will be redeveloped to define customer lifetime value? Coordinating the work of this IT-enabled work across silos incurs a not insignificant cost. Hence some work that would otherwise lead to duplicated effort should be centralized.
Where IT should Matter
For many, a centralized function might be the IT department, or in Finance. Such centralized IT-enabled work should be that which is suited for reliability, resilience, and repeatability. Coordination across the silos-at-the-edge and the central teams still remains a challenge. And increasingly hybrid or mixed models appear in more mature businesses. Coordination challenges and opportunity will likely outlive any evolution of centralization or decentralization.
So the article plays in the emotive idea of shutting down IT. That’s not the real point. The real point is that you should be deliberate about where work should take place. Some work will likely be undertaken by centralized teams focused on the use of information and technology, or I&T. Some work will likely be undertaken by decentralized teams distributed in business functions using I&T. That should be obvious. What is less obvious are the methods, models and leadership skills needed to make this change happen and stick. That’s why we are here.
Relevant Gartner Research for Data and Analytics:
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