Time for a logic puzzle: How are the following two pairs of statements the same, and how are they different?

First pair: IT has to be business-driven. We have to stop buying technology for technology’s sake.

Second pair: A stitch in time saves nine. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Got the answer? Here’s mine:

They’re the same in that both pairs are trite. They’re different in that the second pair provides good, if cliched, advice, where the first pair are like bad baloney — there’s not enough real meat in ’em.

I have yet to find an IT organization that buys technology for its own sake. I have run into quite a few whose leaders and staff had insufficient business acumen and poorly developed bunk detectors, falling for stories about the amazing business improvements to be had from one technology or another. But that’s different. Bad judgment isn’t the same thing as purchasing toys.

As for IT being driven by the business, it’s one of those half-truths that’s more dangerous than ignorance. It’s also a “truth” that’s contradicted by another truism — that IT should be proactive, not reactive. Would someone care to explain how IT can be both proactive and externally driven?

The optimal solution is more complicated, as optimal solutions usually are. Let’s start with this: In the absence of technological change, business practices stabilize and eventually stagnate. Look at every new business model that’s appeared over the past fifty years or so. You’ll have a hard time finding any that weren’t enabled by new or improved technologies, often information technologies. Whether the new business model was “big-box” retailing, direct marketing, the shift from grocers to supermarkets, or the broad trend toward product diversification, all appeared after some technological innovation made possible what was previously impractical.

An obvious example was the Internet. Imagine you were the CIO of a major travel agency in the early 1990s. Because you understood IT is supposed to be business-driven, you waited patiently (and in vain) for someone to ask you to put the company’s services on-line.

Bad call.

A less-well-known example: During the early days of computer telephony integration (CTI), a survey showed that telecommunications managers were the least-likely CTI advocates in most companies. How depressing: The individuals most likely to run across a business opportunity saw it as just another headache instead, and Somebody Else’s Problem.

One of the standard tools of strategic planning is SWOT analysis, for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. (It’s spelled backward, by the way: The analysis should start with threats and opportunities, reserving weaknesses and strengths for later.) When the business looks for threats and opportunities — for external trends with the potential to change your industry — where are you? In your office, waiting for the telephone to ring, or in the thick of the discussion?

Now about those strengths and weaknesses. Most of these will focus on internal businesses processes. Unless the process owners are simply incompetent, chances are good your internal processes are as good as they’re likely to get without the addition of some new, enabling information technologies, which you’re supposed to know more about than any business leader.

So what’s your role, whether you spell it SWOT or TOWS? You could wait at your desk, secure that your responsibility is to be driven by the business. If that’s your decision, when the most important threats and opportunities are the result of technological change, I have just one question:

If not you, then whom?