Signs You're An Endangered IT Species - InformationWeek

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IT Leadership // CIO Insights & Innovation
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4/8/2016
08:06 AM
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Signs You're An Endangered IT Species

Is IT at your organization a valued component of the business, or is it headed for the tar pits of extinction?

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I had a dinner recently with someone who was ready to fire the firm's CIO. This is not a small firm, and not a small matter. But what surprised me was that my dinner partner's complaint was about something that, from a business standpoint, should be as extinct as an Osbourn 24-pound "luggable" computer: "He's only interested in connections and servers," and not anything to do with business. What? How is this even possible in 2016? 

Yet, a straw poll among friends and business partners, including a conversation with Deloitte Consulting, reveals that the "technocrat's IT organization" is still alive and kicking. It's funny, until it's not. Dinosaur IT leadership not only fails to serve the folks who are paying everybody's salary, it also harms IT staff in the long run. Extinction is bad for everyone.

I recognize that I'm in a glass house here. I come not to cast stones, but to encourage awareness. Yes, of course CIOs need to know something about technology, and of course "it's complicated." But business technology needs an engine of tech savvy, plus a transmission of business leadership. If you don't have both, you're not going anywhere. 

(Image: lorenzo rossi/iStockphoto)

(Image: lorenzo rossi/iStockphoto)

Situations like the one that the soon-to-be-sad CIO is in occur when the individual isn't open to feedback. It could happen to any of us if we think that our business is technology, and that we are the masters of our business. Except, the business isn't IT. IT is there to be integrated and tightly coupled with business activities, not to stand alone.

Everyone should be interested in stopping a given IT organization's slide into a tar pit before it happens, not only because we want IT to survive, but also because we want the larger organization to survive. Disruption is knocking on every industry's door, and IT must not only remain functional, but integrated into business activities.

Preventing disruption requires both IT leadership and staff to modernize their thinking about what matters.

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I had a great conversation about business disruption and the need for modernization of business technology platforms with Bill Briggs recently, spurred by some thinking that I did about the imperative to retire legacy systems when they no longer meet the organization's business needs.

Part of the "dinosaur IT" problem is a lack of self-awareness, so Briggs and I discussed how you might test yourself to find out if you're in the "dinosaur IT" camp, sort of like Jeff Foxworthy's "You might be a redneck if ..." So, with apologies to the comedian, here it is:

How to Tell If You Might Be an Endangered IT Species

Operator error. Briggs says that you might be headed for extinction if "the business engages you only as an operator. They shape the solution and chose a vendor, and want you to come screw it in." Lest you say that this practice surely isn't IT's fault, let me assure you that many business folks, when they trust IT's business acumen, would rather have IT lead the charge with business technology innovation. The situation where they use IT exclusively as an operator arises largely because they don't really trust IT, but they also don't have a choice.

Dial Tone Demon. If "most of your interactions are keeping the lights on," Briggs says, it's a pretty clear warning sign that you're heading towards a commodity relationship with your business. 

Outage Obsession. If, worse, the lights aren't on, says Briggs, and they're coming to smack you around to get the trains running again, that's a pretty clear sign. My personal experience, again and again, is that innovation must be preceded by operational excellence. Nobody's going to trust you to do anything risky or cool (in other words, innovative) if you can't handle the basics of ops

Business-Allergic. If you can't speak the language of business, you might be in danger of IT extinction. Briggs asked, "Can you talk about your world like a venture capitalist? Do you have line of sight to your balance sheet on your investments, and do you know what the expected returns are?"

This is the big one. If IT leadership can't understand the language of business, or the practices of finance, how can IT leadership expect to make any kind of positive contribution to the business?

Nobody's perfect, and not everyone's business IQ is as high as everyone else's. But, my experience is that IT leaders who at least try to speak the language of business and learn the practices of business are in no danger of going extinct. Those who can't, or worse, won't, will continue their oblivious slide into the tar pit.

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human ... View Full Bio
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