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The End Of IT: More Questions, Some Answers

Jonathan Feldman, CIO of the City of Asheville, N.C., responds to some of the many questions elicited by his earlier column "Why It's Time To Say Goodbye To IT."
6 Secrets 100 Winning IT Organizations Share
6 Secrets 100 Winning IT Organizations Share
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At the end of 2015, I wrote a column called Why It's Time To Say Goodbye To IT.

In that December column I argued that there's something wrong with IT; that most IT is perpetually at war with business units; that "security expert" tasks somehow turn into "how to disable the business unit"; and that the model of "superhero IT," in which IT positions itself as superior and a rescuer to everyone else, is fundamentally dysfunctional.

I stand by these statements. There are IT organizations that are exceptions but, for the most part, we would be better off tossing legacy IT in the trash and reincarnating it as Digital Services. This model would combine a mix of technology, marketing, and customer service skills, with a focus on collaboration.

Thought leaders in both the US and Russia challenged me on these concepts and asked for elaboration. Below are two sets of questions and my responses.

Born In The USA

Eric Jackson, a US-based serial startup technologist with experience at Dell and Quest Software (and, might I add, my Russian translator), started off the barrage of questions. He said:

The big questions that arise for me from the article are about "how." One way, of course, is to fire everybody in IT (and probably everybody else in the organization) and start over. However, assuming that idea won't fly:

How do you get existing IT staff to think of themselves as collaborators with or, maybe even better, people who empower their colleagues on the business side?

Eric, I think it's all about leadership. My favorite leadership framework, "The Leadership Challenge," insists that leaders must "model the way."

So, here's my return question: "Is the chief of the tribe actually collaborating?" If so, collaboration is much more likely. If not, collaboration probably won't happen. If the CxO is modeling the way, I'm betting that the right type of collaboration and empowerment will also happen with staff. I have written before that we won't get to digital until we have "digital" employees. The change in behavior must happen both from the "top" of the organization and in rank-and-file.

Eric then asked:

How do you get business staff to rethink the role of IT in the business and their own role with respect to IT?

Challenge business staff to stop exhibiting a "learned helplessness." Ask them if they think that using technology is part of their role. Inevitably, they will say "yes."

Then the question is, "What parts of technology can you take on?" As I said in my previous column, we're going to get nowhere fast if business staff continues to do dopey stuff, like asking IT to change inkjet cartridges or to install a simple app on their mobile device.

[Is IT at your organization a valued component of the business, or is it headed for the tar pits of extinction? See Signs You're an Endangered IT Species.]

Selecting which parts of technology are appropriate for business staff to handle is kind of like choosing a vehicle. We might not be able to fix an engine, but many of us rise to the occasion when it is time to select a new car. Sure, we might have a mechanic inspect the vehicle prior to purchase to make sure that there are no ugly surprises.

We know that when the engine breaks, we'll have to consult a technologist, but for the most part, even as non-technologists we can pick a vehicle with features that make sense for us. After purchase, there are choices to be made about how you're going to take care of that vehicle. Most of us probably would not pay someone to add windshield washer fluid, right?

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So, let's bring that back to IT. On the application side, there's generally no reason for an analyst to be involved in an app selection. There might be a need for an analyst to vet whether a given app has the appropriate governance or data sovereignty features. IT has a role, but it's a far less dopey and far more valuable one than installing a simple app on your smartphone for you.

If IT was to be responsible for everything in the organization that has technology in it, you would quickly increase the size of your IT team to mirror all your business staff. That's not going to happen, and it shouldn't happen.

Next Eric asked:

How do you get buy-in and sustained support from management or, even better, how do you get them starting to create their own vision around IT-enabled change?

This gets to the core of the matter. Again, companies will not become digital until the employees, including the executives, adopt digital-age attitudes and techniques. The question is, "How?" In many instances, this will be a Darwinian process. Those CEOs who think digitally and who understand disruption will naturally lead their organizations to better places. In other cases, boards and directors will select new CEOs, perhaps those who have demonstrated an understanding of both business and the new digital age.

I am not sanguine about that a superhero CIO can somehow convince an old-school CEO to adopt digital age practices. That change must come from within the CEO or from the board. The CIO can help, but only if the CEO wants to be helped.

From Russia, With Love

Oleg Vainberg, a Russian business trainer, wrote me:

Many CEOs believe that PMI, PMBok, AFW, Prince2, and other acronyms can save their organizations. But project methodologies are not a silver bullet. And I fear that good ideas will be discredited by greedy consultants who promise to solve all the organization's problems by installing a new and very expensive PM-system and a brave CIO who promises the same thing."

Right on, Oleg! I agree, totally. Frameworks are powerful, but let's not put the cart before the horse. Frameworks should be things that assist strong leadership, but they are not a substitute for strong leadership. All too often, the organization spends a lot of money on consultants who trot in their consulting framework before even considering how it could fit at the organization, and whether the framework is truly the right approach -- whether it is ITIL, COBiT, or the consultant's own custom framework.

And yet everyone gets excited, and everyone gets a mug, or a T-shirt, or (if you've spent a lot of money) a backpack. 

Too frequently, the consultant doesn't take into account the business environment, or the consultant doesn't spend adequate time assessing conditions before applying the framework. This process is a little like a painter who shows up and doesn't clean the existing painted surface or apply primer. That new coat of paint is going to peel off sooner rather than later.

That is indeed what happens in many of these situations. The consultant disappears, and the new practices stick around (sometimes) for perhaps a month or two. Then people get busy. They get into survival mode. They revert back to their quickest, most natural ways of working -- in other words, the process state before the expensive consultant showed up. Tell me how this could be a good use of scarce resources?

Let's get back to the how of it all. Consider this before hiring a pricey consultant: IT is not a tech business, it is a people business. Any successful CIO will tell you that. Success in pushing the business agenda generally comes from dedicated people who commit to business progress. Yes, many times it is through technology, but the main event is business progress. Great technologists are quick to throw out a given technology when it becomes apparent that it does not fit. 

Frameworks are great, but my major question to any consultant isn't "What framework do you use?"  It's "How effective have you been with your last 10 clients, and can I talk to them?" If the answer is "no," move on.

Oleg commented:

Many companies conflate project management with change management. They are convinced that if they manage their projects they can sleep peacefully and without bothering with change management. Aren't both needed?

Of course. Project management keeps track of progress on modules, tasks, schedule, and budget. Change management is needed when you're looking to win hearts and minds. You need both.

There is no "organizational change." There are lots of individuals changing. A focus on how a project is going to affect individual employees is not only important, it is critical. Indeed, change management expert Mary Lynn Manns once told me that the ways individuals are treated can determine the success or failure of projects.

I agree that project management and change management are needed. But let me expand on that question a bit. Project discipline is also needed.

Project discipline means that the executive involved is willing and able to identify resources available, compare them against what resources are needed to attack a given project portfolio, and then identify what's not going to get done.

This can be anathema in some organizations, where every project that comes down the pipeline is considered as "the most important project." Yet, every project portfolio must be "force ranked," and every organization needs a consolidated Gantt chart (or other methodology) which represents activity in every business unit.

Effective project management and change management require rigorous deferral of projects, and deletion of projects must occur. When project discipline doesn't exist, it means that the people doing the project and change management are overwhelmed and can't adequately focus on anything.

This last concept doesn't seem terribly digital, until you consider that the whole idea of digital is to transform your business. Then you realize that without freeing up time and resources to focus on digital transformation it won't happen.

Project discipline is one of the primary gateways through which digital transformation happens.