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Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Down To Business: Show Some Courage

We're becoming too conservative and controlling. Regardless of the reasons, it's high time we started chipping away at our hidebound cultures.

Reject mediocrity, embrace innovation--or get replaced by hungrier competitors in China, India, and elsewhere. That was Gartner's tough-love message to business technology pros at the advisory firm's symposium in San Francisco last week. "IT is a stagnant and declining market," declared Gartner VP Steve Prentice. Even more pointed was Gartner fellow Jennifer Beck: "Are we predicting the demise of the conventional IT organization? Yes."

Why is Gartner so grumpy? Because, its analysts maintain, IT organizations continue to be preoccupied with deploying technology rather than providing service, with minimizing risk rather than maximizing opportunities. "Most IT organizations can't deliver new value because their DNA is fundamentally about control," Beck said at the conference.

For the most part, we're on board with Gartner's latest rallying cry. In an InformationWeek cover story a year ago, we urged IT organizations with a "culture of no" to give end users a bigger say in technology selection and innovation, especially in the realm of Web 2.0 applications. In a January story based on InformationWeek research, we raised concerns about the fact that almost half of the senior business technology execs we surveyed said they're either becoming more conservative with their investments and deployments or not changing their strategies significantly. A month ago, we worried that too many CIOs spend their time sweating the operational stuff--cutting costs, maintaining, securing, and backing up systems--and not enough time creating business value.

But the DNA of most IT organizations isn't about control or conservatism. Those traits are learned, not part of the gene pool, as we've been conditioned by a society and business culture that insists on buttoning everything down.

It's tough to innovate when the legal department is breathing down your neck on Sarbanes-Oxley and various industry-specific regs; when the CFO demands a near-immediate return on tech investments; when the chief privacy officer (as well as various "watchdog" groups) is putting the screws to most every RFID, data-gathering, and business-intelligence initiative. As one frustrated IT executive summed it up for me a year ago: "I'm not driving jack. I'm being driven."

No wonder, as Gartner's Prentice complained last week, that Sprint takes the low road in its advertising--touting "fewest dropped calls" rather than network advances--when our command-and-control culture measures excellence based on our ability to avoid screwups.

Business technology conservatism is also a by-product of market uncertainty. As jobs are shipped offshore and budgets are tightened, people are afraid to take chances and make mistakes, to call too much attention to themselves. In this environment, the squeaky wheel doesn't get the grease so much as it gets replaced with the ill-fitting donut in the trunk.

All that said, the "woe is me" approach gets us nowhere. We've seen too much self-pity, too prevalent a sense of entitlement, too much longing for the days of yore. If our IT organizations have become too controlling and conservative, it's simply up to each of us to chip away at that hidebound culture.

Throughout his 30 years at United Parcel Service, in various technology and other roles, CIO Dave Barnes says he always was encouraged to challenge conventional wisdom--but to propose alternative solutions, not just play devil's advocate, in line with founder Jim Casey's credo of "constructive dissatisfaction." At UPS, the culture of having an "individual and collective role for change" extends from the entry levels to the executive suite, Barnes says.

Similarly, Gartner is calling for more "heroes"--technology pros with the courage to stick their necks out to create something of lasting business value, even in the face of bureaucratic inertia. Do you have the right stuff?

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