Business Technology: The Biggest Threat To Your Career - InformationWeek

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02:52 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans

Business Technology: The Biggest Threat To Your Career

You're still spending 75% of your IT budget on maintenance, your CEO still treats you as a bit of an outsider, and the closest you get to strategic involvement is implementing it rather than helping develop it. If you don't see the interlinked connections among those three conditions, Bob Evans says, then it's time to wake up.

What's the biggest threat to your career? What's the one ugly problem you need to really get your arms around before it gets its claws around your neck? Well, forgive me for crashing your own private nightmare, but I think last week I learned what it is. The bad news is, it's so pervasive and deeply entrenched that truly radical measures will be required to dig it out; the good news is, if you can vanquish this Alien-type monster, you will be a hero for years to come.

The Threat can be expressed in financial terms and in behavioral terms, and the two descriptions are equally valid. And each situation is, for both you and your company, equally dangerous. In addition, each description is one you've no doubt heard about, read about, and discussed many times. Perhaps after each of those discussions, you've promised to get to it tomorrow or next week or next month; perhaps you've dismissed it as outside your control and your team's purview; perhaps you're convinced it somehow just isn't relevant to your situation; or perhaps you've figured that since it affects every company, it's not really that big a deal.

So forgive me if your first reaction upon reading what I think I learned is, after all this build up, anticlimactic. But it would be a terrible mistake to allow our familiarity with this demon to lead to complacency about its danger. The economic realities of business, competition, and rapid global change have combined to wipe out the margin of tolerance that's allowed this insidious situation to live -- and grow -- for so long.

Here's what I'm talking about: Most companies spend an overwhelming portion of their IT budgets on maintaining old stuff, and only a trifle on new projects that can help trigger innovation. As a result, too many CIOs and IT organizations are relegated to second-class roles as reactive implementers of strategy because their time, their budgets, and their energies are almost completely consumed with managing the infrastructure, paying the maintenance charges, servicing aging equipment, connecting the unconnectable, and propping up the lame and infirm.

Again, I know you've heard all about these monsters in the basement and could well be getting sick of hearing even more about it. But the difference today is that more and more CEOs are coming to understand The Threat, and they are demanding it be dragged out of the basement, exposed to the light, and gutted. They are realizing that it has been stifling innovation, sucking up cash, calcifying business processes, and limiting flexibility. They are starting to ask why no one has done anything about it for so long when it is so clear that this condition is simply a disaster for the business. They are beginning to come up with questions such as, "Do you mean to tell me you knew all about this for the past few years and didn't do anything about it?" And they are beginning to form conclusions, such as, "How could I have thought my CIO was doing a good job, when all this time he was presiding over this sinkhole?" A more-sympathetic but hardly comforting interpretation would be this: "Well, I'm disappointed, but not surprised -- it just confirms that these CIO-types are more concerned about preserving the outdated systems they've built than they are with improving the business. Good thing I held off on adding him to the Executive Committee -- he clearly wouldn't have belonged."

Other Voices

"CIOs looking to get a seat in their company's executive boardrooms need to do a better job speaking the same language as their CEO and understanding his or her business priorities, according to a top consultant and best-selling business author. 'Learn about what the CEO wants to know,' said Ram Charan, former Harvard professor, speaking Sunday at the InformationWeek Spring Conference in Amelia Island, Fla."

-- Paul McDougall,

Let me offer some thoughts and discussion points from last week's InformationWeek Spring Conference that illustrate the dangers behind this situation. Consultant and author Ram Charan asked attendees to participate in a deceptively simple analysis of their career trajectories. Charan had the group plot out their IT budgets for the next five years, with those budgets split into three line items: Service/Maintenance, Business Efficiency, and Transformational. He emphasized that those CIOs who aren't able to find ways to push ever-increasing percentages out of the first line item into the second and, more important, the third will simply box themselves out of consideration for broad leadership within the company. Unchecked, the ravenous maintenance appetite will devour not only ever-larger portions of the budget but also opportunities for IT organizations to become intimately involved in the strategic thinking of their companies. How, Charan asked, can a CIO expect the CEO to see IT as strategic if the CIO's own choices and priorities isolate IT from innovation and transformation?

C.K. Prahalad of the University of Michigan stressed that legacy systems not only suck up devastatingly big percentages of the overall IT budget, but also prevent companies from developing more-flexible IT architectures that allow information systems to move from being transaction-driven and inflexible to event-driven and massively flexible. Yesterday's maintenance monsters, he said, were designed to deliver archival information, whereas today's business environment requires real-time information that the older and inflexible systems are unable to deliver.

Today, Prahalad said, most companies are consumed with trying to improve their business processes but are limited by these inflexible systems because they were designed simply to document those processes rather than being able to analyze them, understand them, and recommend ways to optimize them.

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