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Dear IT: No One Likes Petulant Teenagers

Nobody will win if IT and business leaders continue playing Mortal Kombat. Let's step back and redefine our roles.

A recent Harvard Business Review blog post by management professor Terri Griffith finally asks the question: "Are we asking too much of our CIOs?" It is a great question. IT organizations have taken on more and more (and more) as technology pervades every aspect of business and consumer life. Something's gotta give.

From provisioning, operating and securing the sprawling Internet of Things to driving revenue and leading innovation in general, IT is now accountable for the success of virtually the entire business. Almost every important business process innovation of the last two decades has relied on technology: from CRM, ERP and supply chain management in the last two decades to social media, big data, consumerization and software-as-a-service in this one.

As the old maxim goes: Never give accountability without authority. But somewhere in the era of Ethernet and TCP/IP, not only did IT in general start to become mission critical for more and more people, but like a nightmare project, the scope of IT started to creep without commensurate change orders. For example, first IT managers were responsible for building on-premises security systems for their networks, then camera systems, elevators, phones and even fuel pumps became de facto "information technology" objects. Those "things" landed in IT's lap when the folks who installed them went on to spread sunshine elsewhere.

[ If you don't follow this advice, you probably should read this story: 7 Top Career Paths After IT. ]

All of this activity was good, because it avoided building out redundant infrastructure and saved companies boatloads of cash. Trouble was and is, much of this work, even some phone projects, happened without IT's direction, leading to problems that could have been avoided with proper planning. IT organizations started to get used to a pattern of sneak attacks of responsibility without resourcing. It became the new normal.

And so began the pre-pubescent age of digital business. Here's just a couple of many recent examples of digital business accountability without authority.

Retailers and other companies wanted to give customers the curb appeal amenity of Wi-Fi, but they didn't stop to consider that unfettered network access, using the company's public IP addresses, is a one-way ticket to Spamhaus, if not a nasty email from the RIAA or even a visit from the FBI.

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Or consider the company that thinks its IT organization is too slow, so other departments step in by buying software-as-a-service with their credit cards. Their dream turns into a nightmare when their unit becomes hostage to a single provider, that provider gets acquired, its product gets replaced by the new owner's inferior one, and there's no way to migrate to a better competitor's product.

How to fix this mess? Get rid of the middleman! Put the CIO in charge of the company!

OK, I'm kidding. Mostly. Where there's a fight, there's a problem to be solved. We all know that IT pros tend to be too techie and not enough business savvy, but other executives must start carrying their share of the water.

It's fair enough to exhort IT folks to "learn and speak the language of business." But business execs must learn more about technology, learn to "speak the language of digital." Take a class or attend a seminar or two. Get up to speed on the risks of SaaS, the challenges of big data, the true opportunities and downsides with mobile.

Do the math: IT budgets account for 1% or 2%, maybe as high as 5%, of a company's total spending. The people tied to that small percentage can't possibly initiate, manage and lead every single tech-based initiative at a company.

IT personnel don't have to perform common activities such as project management, risk assessment, market and product research and ROI calculation. Their departmental colleagues can take on some of that responsibility. But in today's world, IT is expected to do everything on a so-called technology project. Then when it runs out of capacity and cries uncle, departments fume or go rogue.

We must get rid of the phantom or explicit rule that "nothing that touches technology" can happen unless IT is involved. IT must become more of a guide, a teacher, a subject matter expert, a facilitator, an advocate and, to be sure, an implementer of many things. But IT can't do it all.

This is a very tough proposition for both IT and line-of-business folks. Today's IT organization generally wants a pretty tight span of control (it's that accountability and authority thing again). And business units generally expect that they can call on IT for all of their technology needs or that they will sneak off and do it without any IT involvement.

Everyone is talking about the CMO vs. CIO smackdown, whereby marketing departments implement websites, campaign management and other systems without IT involvement. Critics warn of security breaches and other red alerts that will require IT to jump in blind. But if IT organizations can get their heads out of the span-of-control mindset and into the facilitator mindset, they can take on a new role as facilitator and advocate.

Maybe the answer is simply: "OK, you don't need us." Or maybe IT will add value by pointing out to the marketing leaders that their chosen system vendor has no security chops, and that they might want to either harness IT or a third-party security provider.

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Under this new mindset, when IT sees manufacturing doing big data and installing "unauthorized" operating systems on the company network, it won't start World War III, but instead help manufacturing patch their OSs to be secure and figure out a support plan. Notice that I didn't say "do it all." In some cases, IT won't have the expertise and will have to figure out which vendor could help.

In short, IT will quit acting like a petulant teenager when everything isn't under its control.

But the CMO will stop acting like a jerk too.

The CMO and other business executives will learn something about tech. They'll invite IT to the table, not because they long to obey IT, but because they know that IT pros are smart about digital tech, and that it's in the organization's best interests for subject matter experts who have skin in the game to sit at the table.

The question isn't who is going to win, because nobody's going to win if we continue playing Mortal Kombat. The question is, who's going to put their big boy and girl pants on and admit that we've all got some changing to do?

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