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Are we asking the right questions concerning the future of IT?

by Mark P. McDonald  |  December 5, 2012  |  14 Comments

Everywhere I look, including on this blog,  people are telling each other what they need to do to be successful.  “Use this process,” “create this type of strategy,” “apply this tool,” etc., the constant drum roll of recommendations can leave you numb and confused.  Numb to the extent that the sheer volume of advice pummels us into submission.  Confused as even a quick review shows a plethora of contradictory ideas.

Lets change that.

Each Friday in December, I will be posting a fundamental question about IT’s future for your consideration, reflection, comment and discussion.  The idea is to start a debate that goes beyond simply updating or adjusting IT to go back to its roots.  The goal is to get a sense of where we need to go by thinking about where we are now and how we got here.  This type of reflective reciprocity should lay the foundation for a positive and action oriented discussion.  Here are the proposed questions for December.

These are candidate questions, if they need to change please comment and we can adjust them.

The reason to start a debate this holiday season

With everyone ‘listening with their mouth’, as Ken McGee told me, we are losing the context behind all of this advice and the attention we give to it.   There is a quantity of answers with varying degrees of quality.  But, there are too few real questions.

We need to ask tough questions about IT. By IT I mean the IT organization, its role, responsibility, strategic contribution, structure, etc. not technology. We definitely need technology, but technology is greater than IT, so we need to consider the IT as separate from technology.

Why ask these questions?  Well as I reflect on IT at an existentialist level one thing is increasingly clear.

IT as we know it is in real trouble.

Now that is a bold statement that normally leads to even more rhetoric and recommendations regarding what we should do to save IT, prove its business value, etc. But consider that globally IT budgets have been essentially flat, a decade of devaluation, CIOs consistently point out that they cannot get the right skills in IT, and finally that future pool of work related to IT’s traditional strategic strength – process automation and integration is drying up.  While new digital technologies brighten the outlook, many companies are going digital with limited IT leadership and involvement.   I doubt our future relevance rests in simply strengthening the past.

If you step back and look at the fundamentals you can make a case that IT is in deep and even existentialist trouble.  Trouble not at the individual firm level, there will always be leaders and late followers, but trouble to the extent that incremental change; adjustment and improvement may not be able to address IT’s strategic, organizational and operational relevance in the future.

I am sure you feel it when you wonder about the future of IT, your career, job prospects and future. Things are not as secure, our understanding not as deep, our rational not as relevant as they once were.

While IT professionals have always labored in an environment of innovation, change and operational pressures, this environment feels different.  There has never been more choice in how companies acquire and use technology and the modern IT organization was founded under the assumption that it had an organizational monopoly on technology in the enterprise.

It is time to question that an every other assumption we have for IT by asking questions rather than asserting advice.  The first question will be posted on this Friday.  Let the discussion begin.

Are these the right questions?  Welcome your thoughts and adjustments.

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Category: 2013  leadership  management  strategy  tough-questions  

Tags: 2013-planning  business-leadership  business-management  business-strategy  strategy  strategy-and-planning  technology-leadership  

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a Vice President and Fellow Emeritus in Gartner for General Managers Program.

Thoughts on Are we asking the right questions concerning the future of IT?

  1. Joe says:

    IT often looks for skills so restrictive they can’t fill the position and don’t express work the person will do. Sometimes this is on purpose to game laws that require looking for US citizens before importing labor from overseas. Other times, it is ignorance.

    As our effort expanded, a better position opened for work I did. I was getting awards, was expected to get the job, but found unqualified due to job skills requirements unrelated to the job. The position was not filled and was closed. Someone was transferred in and I had to train him. They asked me why was I leaving, and I said the real question they should ask is: why should I stay? I got $10k more when I left.

  2. Van says:

    Me? I just worry about the future of your proofreader. Every post of yours is full of basic errors, such as “it’s” used as a possessive. Step up your game.

  3. Mark P. McDonald says:


    Thanks for pointing this out and my apologies as I wrote this on the airplane from the U.S. to Europe. An explanation not an excuse.


  4. Wayne Tarken says:

    Mark – Enjoy your tweets and articles very much. One suggestion would be something on the CIO or leadership in IT. Is it too important to be left to the CIO? What are the shifting skills and future expertise required to be a leader in IT?

  5. Ken Williams says:

    I really like your line about IT having a monopoly within an organization. I think this goes double with government IT departments. Google, Open-Mesh, and BYOD all offer employees an escape from that monopoly on high cost, overly complex, rigid infrastructure. Especially Open-mesh which makes advanced network control trivial. To speed this escape more work functions are going web based, each new work function that is web based opens another possibility for escape to the world of personal control over technology. I think the best role traditional IT staff can step up and do now is training and support for these newly liberated workers. Teach them how to get the most from their gadgets and facilitate them to explain to each other since they know best what works for them. Workers are being eMancipated from mundane performance dictated by people who really do not understand them and what they do. IT needs to tune in to the user just to keep up now. Power has shifted in favour of performance over beaurocracy.

  6. Ken Williams says:

    Note to Van, I realized I made a spelling mistake in “beaurocrocy”, it should read: bureaucracy. My excuse is I am typing in a French mode on my browser and almost every word is underlined in red! So funny I got the French root of that word wrong…oh well please accept this patch to that bug.

  7. Mark – great subject, great timing.

    I often wonder whether we blew it when we included the word “technology” in IT. We don’t talk about Finance Technology (Derivatives, saddles, options are all technology), we don’t talk about Operations Technology (there is a lot of it), etc. It is Finance, It is Operations – It should probably be Information (at one point I think companies used Informatics). Over identification with the technology made us “blue collar” (not a negative, just a statement that we don’t have a seat at the executive table). CIO is mostly Chief Infrastructure Officer. And how do companies get the rest of their infrastructure – power, water, sewer, etc.?

    Our future rests on the value we produce (for the customers of the business), the opportunities we identify (for our businesses) and the knowledge we have (of the business, of the capabilities of the technologies, etc.) not on the tools and processes we use to produce it.

  8. One last thought for what it is worth. I have been talking to a lot of CIO’s lately about the need to transform themselves and their teams – if it doesn’t generate customer value, it it is not a legal or regulatory requirement for you to do it or you are not the best in the world at doing it – then become someone else s customer and have them do it for you.

    I think every CIO should look at 4 dimensions of their job (their Interactions & Relationships across the enterprise; their Resources & and how they Allocate them; the Questions they ask & what they Focus on; and the Outcomes they generate & their daily Activities) then ask themselves – what should I stop doing, what should I start doing and what should I do differently so that I am only creating value, meeting legal and regulatory needs and being the best anyone can possibly be in what we do…

  9. Keith Prabhu says:

    Dear Mark,

    On your question “Is the IT organization, as we currently know it, worth saving?” my answer is a resounding no. However, that does not mean that the IT organization is itself not required.

    With the emergence of the Cloud and complex interoperable technologies, the IT department’s job has become both simple and complex at the same time. Its time that the IT department changes its course. We have smart guys in the IT department doing routine jobs like upgrades and backups. They need to now focus on the tougher job of how to use IT to get real business results.

    This will take a change in mindset, which we know is probably the most difficult upgrade that the IT professionals will ever undertake. Else they will need to look for jobs at Managed Services Providers if they continue to do what they are doing.

    Keith Prabhu

  10. Well! Yes all are best questions you have asked .. Can you tell me small answers I am confused about?

    Please guide what is the difference between Computer Science and IT?

    Similarly, i am confused bout CS, IT, and Software Engineering too..

    Thanks in advance 🙂

  11. […] Are we asking the right questions concerning the future of IT? […]

  12. Jay Oza says:

    What I am noticing is that in order for companies to compete today, they need technology, but not IT.

    IT was important when technology was expensive and companies needed IT since it was expensive and complex. Today it is not, so IT has lost its importance and, could potentially, hinder a company’s ability to compete.

  13. I do no think we are going right regarding IT over here. IT does not include computer only or software or hardware what we have really perceived. It includes discussion related to networking, VPN all over the world i.e. UK or USA VPN, Robots, MIS, HCI, and many other stuff. So, IT has gained much importance as far as professions and careers are concerned.

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