Technology, Cloud

Is business mindset for IT overblown...or miscast?

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I've listened to a lot of hot air about the notion that IT needs to adopt more of a business mindset and move away from its longstanding technology orientation. We seem to hear an idea that  sounds good, and it becomes a zero sum game - we adopt the idea whole hog. It's all or nothing.

That's nonsense, of course. Enterprises are crawling with MBAs who have plenty of business mindset. What IT uniquely brings to that discussion is how to apply technology to the business. IT relinquishing its position as the major source of technology expertise is like finance moving away from profit forecasts. You think the cloud is making technology simpler? The cloud is simply another avenue that requires technical, legal, security and business chops.

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying the upper reaches of IT management could not do a better job of understanding the particular needs of business. But IT's role is to execute the application of technology to help reach those goals. 

What's left for IT if it relinquishes its role as enterprise technologist? Has development, project management, security, governance, contracts, outsourcing and whatever else I am surely missing become trivial? How are experts in these areas not supporting the collective goals and strategies of the enterprise?

And if not experts in technology, what is IT exactly?

Let's look at the doomsday scenario: IT does not adopt a stronger mindset business and vanishes. Who picks up the pieces? The CFO and the finance organization? A few engineers who happen to like technology? Who writes the technical particulars into the outsourcing and cloud contracts? Who specifices services and end user devices and makes them secure? And surely, there will still be a few data centers to run (I guess the smart ITer should hook on with a cloud services company).

There's a good discussion about this topic at the CIO Network on LinkedIn, but let's start one here. Suffice it to say, most of the participants there have jumped on the business mindset bandwgon, but there's a few who might side somewhat with my position.

In some respects, IT is paying for decades of technology arrogance and moving far too slowly, but that's another topic. My contention is that while there's  middle ground, technology has been getting markedly short shrift as reflected in this comment from the lively LinkedIn discussion

"Funny.. as a business guy with an affinity for technology and currently completing grad studies in technology, I'm interested in transitioning the other way (to some extent). Perhaps there are mutual collaboration opportunities here. Love to connect and chat more with anyone who may be interested."

 What do you think? 

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Martin Davis 131 Points | Fri, 07/15/2011 - 01:59

John - great article. I fully agree with your and Julie’s comments.

For IT to survive, it must be talking the same language as the business, and be able to provide them with opportunities described in process or business terms, including a clearly defined ROI. IT cannot be at the senior table and yet be talking a different language.

Failure to adopt a business mindset leaves IT doing technology for technology’s sake (see my recent blog post on this). Most of the business does not care about the technical details (apart from a few business people who are frustrated techies!). But IT cannot afford to lose its technology mindset in order to make the right decisions and architect a successful future for the business.

Even with the increase in consumer technology, IT has an important role to play in delivering the overall framework that the business needs. The successful future for IT will depend on its ability to adapt and help the business make the most of ever more powerful end user tools without compromising the business, or the technical infrastructure.

Christian Verstraete 429 Points | Wed, 07/13/2011 - 11:43

Meeting with many CIO's and IT people, I'm often flabergasted that discussion often turn around technology. Yes, John, there are plenty of MBA's in IT, but it seems their position in the organization, the way they are measured or evaluated, the environment in which they operate and the people they work with day in day out, focuses many of them on the IT side of the job. It's often the top IT management that sets the tone. How close are they to the business, how much does the business underlies their actions and words? To take an example, obviously security is important, but for what reason do we need security, what do we have to secure, why is it important for the business and how could we address the business needs, are not discussed that often... at least not with us.

John Dodge 1535 Points | Wed, 07/13/2011 - 13:25

CIOs have to talk the language of the C suite and those issues center around the business, of course. The CEO doesn't want or need to talk about the latest blade technology or the finer points of C++...nor does the CIO. But what is the gutts of IT? Those business needs get translated down through the chain of command and fullfilled by technology. At some point and perhaps this is crux of issue (whatever that is-:)) is where the business discussion in that chain of command turns into a technology discussion. Clearly, the IT exec who has a strengths in both tech and the business has the best chances of survival.      

Julie Williams
Julie Williams 0 Points | Wed, 07/13/2011 - 22:38

Throughly agree with John on this. IT needs to "speak the language of the business", the role of IT is to provide a service into the business, translating the service offering without complex technical jargon and no surprises The business needs to know that the quality of service being offered the risk, 'what's in it for them, are the benefits achievable' and whether or not IT can deliver the proposition on time and within budget. Happy medium is when IT communicates and the business understand the high-level (what, when, where) approach ... with less emphasis on the detailed (how)

Donny Buckman 4 Points | Wed, 07/13/2011 - 19:11

Hi John,

Companies make IT investments to augment business processes and improve the value chain for them and their partners. The idea is to gain enough in-depth knowledge of a particular job description that additional automated processes from the steps human take are made technically feasible. This magnification of individual employees increases their value, and lowers the costs of the human capital. IT must be capable of understanding the information needs of every individual over the entire org. chart. The team should measure IT projects in large part using activity measures to determine how much time and energy stakeholders save as an outcome of the project. Acquiring the information to baseline the measures is something business oriented employees may be better trained to do without needing to invest in more IT infrastructure, as I would be prone to do. The business mindset for IT should focus more on the alignment of collaborative team strategies to magnify the work people do as part of the organization.

Judy Redman
Judy Redman 55 Points | Wed, 07/13/2011 - 02:25

John, to state the obvious, it's a two-way street.  When I hear the debate about business and technology alignment I think the knife cuts both ways.  I'm not in IT, but I need to know quite a bit about IT and technology to do my job.  Like nearly everyone who works in a business today I have become more and more IT savvy.  It's not just Microsoft applications either.   I have learned HTML and Web publishing programs, how to prepare a business case for the IT department in language that IT understands so that they will sponsor a tech project needed by the business.  I've learned how to set up my own home wireless network and all kinds of other tech skills to increase my value to the company.  I believe IT has to keep learning about the business and the business has to keep learning about technology.  They are intertwined and interdependent.  That said, I want IT to keep its technology expertise, because we need them to be the experts in that area. 


Creagh Warren 4 Points | Wed, 07/13/2011 - 02:56

I tend to basically agree with you John. I too have been following the discussion on LinkedIn and made a comment earlier on in the peace but have watched it grow into a hot air contest. Not that there weren't excellent opinions expressed but it all seemed to get rather carried away and, at some points, seemed to turn into an honour roll advertisement campaign. Perhaps there may have been a bit of confusion about the question - was it aimed at the IT department as a unit or individuals within the department? If individuals (as the question does seem to indicate) then it is nearly irrelevant. The technical people should just carry on doing what they do in the way that has been working for quite some time and leave the business integration and strategic partnership side of things to the CIO/IT management. They can then manage their staff to deliver the results to the business, employing business speak, metrics, etc. (which, of course, I'm not saying isn't something that also needs to  be done). As I said in my comments, does the 'business' really care if IT is comprised of mice in spinning wheels if the service they deliver is responsive, appropriate and contributes to stong ongoing operations and business growth.

It's really the same for any business (or business unit). Does a mechanic need to transition from a technical mindset to a buzz word business midset? Just let him fix the car without needing to be a front man to the customer doing quick changes from oil stained overalls to suit and tie - that's someone elses job. Obviously it's a bit of a different matter when you're running your own small business where you have to be all things to all people but, again, I'm sure that wasn't the scenario envisioned when the question was posed.