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The lack of future of IT?

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Mark Twain missed the big one.

As he pointed out, lies, damned lies and statistics can certainly give people the wrong impression. But if you really want to convince someone that up is down, they’re flimsy tools compared to the really big deceiver: Surveys.

I’m not talking about the well-understood practice of asking biased questions, like Burger King’s famous, “Would you prefer to eat a delicious hamburger, cooked from a quarter pound of fresh ground beef on an open flame, or a disgusting, greasy, fried, hockey-puck-like mess?” (I might have the exact phrasing wrong — I’m working from memory) that led to its not-very-effective “The Whopper beat the Big Mac” ad campaign some years back.

Sure, it’s a useful technique. It’s simply second-rate compared to one exemplified by a recent Gartner survey, reported in the January 14th issue of Processor magazine in an article titled, “The End of the IT Department as We Know It.”

The survey asked the popular question, “What’s your biggest frustration — something you’re supposed to accomplish but don’t, or something someone else is supposed to accomplish but doesn’t?”

The exact phrasing was a bit different. Gartner asked corporate executives to identify what gets in the way of strategic change in their companies, and IT failures beat out changing the culture. Since the culture changers are themselves and IT is someone else, the response is less than surprising.

Perception, of course, is reality, so you need to pay attention to this, especially since Gartner sells the perception to the executives with whom you work, also sells its solution, and, unlike you, has a paid sales force and PR machine. According to the article (and to be fair, it’s possible Gartner’s actual findings had fewer logical holes than the article that presented them) what’s going to happen is:

New technologies, that deliver pre-packaged workflows to businesses, and let businesspeople reconnect the process flows by manipulating visual tools and pushing a button (Ta-Da!!!) will fundamentally change the responsibilities of IT departments.

Since today most IT organizations spend the bulk of their budgets on operations and applications, something fundamental needs to change. Mix in outsourcing and the end of IT is at hand.

Oh, and the career solution for technical professionals? Get an MBA.

Let’s deconstruct this, shall we? First of all, suggesting that IT should spend most of its budget on something other than applications and operations is a bit like suggesting that Toyota should spend most of its budget on something other than designing and manufacturing cars. Applications are what people use to do their work. What, other than running the applications you have while enhancing them and delivering new ones, are you supposed to be doing? Raising chickens?

Second, workflow tools (just another class of application, by the way) don’t automate work. They automate the process of assigning work. Once the work arrives at employees’ desks, they still need business applications to help them do it.

Maybe the point is that businesses will start to view internal processes as commodities. Instead of figuring out how you want to run your business, you’ll just buy best-practice processes off-the-shelf, pre-automated and pre-integrated, with no work required from IT other than to install them and no work required from anyone else other than training the end-users.

Yeah, that’ll work. Your COO will buy Wal-Mart’s supply chain processes, Nordstrom’s customer relationship management, Amazon.com’s e-commerce, and Dell’s build-to-order. Voila! Like magic, out will come a lean, mean, fighting medical-devices, cosmetics, or maybe janitorial services machine.

There’s an old saying in the consulting business: It looks great on the PowerPoint.

So here’s some advice you might find a bit more practical regarding how to keep the joint running, from your old keep the joint runner:

Keep on spending most of your budget on operations and applications. Shift as much out of operations as you can every year — but only what you can shift through improved efficiency and not a penny more.

Spend as much as you can on applications — not just coding, of course, but all the associated disciplines that spell the difference between code that runs and successful business change.

And most important of all, pay attention to the “biggest frustration” that started this chunk of rant ‘n roll. Many IT organizations still haven’t mastered the fundamental discipline of managing projects to successful conclusion.

If you haven’t, perception really is reality, and while your IT department might not go away, you probably will. Soon.

And not under your own steam.

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