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IT is pervasive. Except in businesses.

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Politicians tweet. Revolutionaries tweet. Even Tweety Bird tweets. Information technology did that.

Back when, newspapers and television competed only indirectly, and not that much. Now, CNN.com and WashingtonPost.com compete for the exact same advertising dollars and news consumers. Information technology did that, too.

The Arab spring has turned, sadly, into a chaos of constantly aligning and re-aligning factions. But it started with courageous people, linked through the use of cell phones and social media. Technology might not be what made the Arab spring happen, but the Arab spring probably couldn’t have happened without it.

In the world, information technology has become embedded. It’s integrated. Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, World of Warcraft, Flickr, Skype, not to mention Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and of course Google. These aren’t Things People Learn. They’re part of the landscape.

This wasn’t the case twenty years ago, but it is the case now.

Except, that is, in your average corporation. There, information technology is a separate bucket of stuff. Many business leaders still seem to think that if they want to cut the corporate budget, cutting the IT budget is a good place to start.

As I’ve pointed out here from time to time, this is like trying to cool a room by blowing cold air at the thermostat. It works, too, in very much the same way. Usually, the only thermometer in the room is on the thermostat, so the metrics report success even though everyone in the room is sweltering.

Cut the IT budget and it does sure look like corporate spending is lower than it used to be. The income-and-expense statement says so.

That’s one of the problems with metrics. They report the state of things, but they don’t tell you anything about cause-and-effect relationships because they can’t.

A corporation is a complex system. And that’s on a good day. On a bad one Complexity Theory has to give way to Chaos Theory if you’re going to make any sense of what’s going on.

But as someone once said, I digress. The question in front of us is, how did the world get so far ahead of the business world? How is it that in the world, information technology is embedded and integrated, while most business executives continue to think there’s such a thing as an “IT project”?

Yes, yes, I know I’m in danger of becoming tiresome on this subject. But what’s a poor Recognized Industry Pundit (RIP) to do? I figure, maybe if I act like a frustrated American tourist in Paris and Just Talk Louder, they’ll finally understand what I’m getting at.

Probably not, because I’m guessing the CEOs who still don’t get it … the CEOs who think CIOs should be able to calculate the ROI for all the money the company spends on information technology … aren’t the CEOs who read Keep the Joint Running.

If you work for one of them, or if you work for a CIO who works for one of them, give it the old college try one more time. (But not my old college — I went to Macalester, whose football team, while I attended, was in the middle of a 69-game losing streak.)

Where was I?

The old college try, that’s right.

Right now, the trend-spotting community is hot on the trail of something variously called “the digital transformation,” the “third platform” and, among the cynical, “everything that’s trendy blended into a casserole.” It’s the combination of (in no particular order) social media, cloud computing, big data, the next-generation workforce, smart products, the “internet of things,” and mobile computing.

No, that’s wrong. That’s the old there-is-such-a-thing-as-an-IT-project perspective of the change.

The transformation is more fundamental than that. It’s all of the above, viewed from a 90-degree angle. It’s the world of business when information technology isn’t a case-by-case decision anymore — information technology is and is expected to be pervasive.

Understand, this transformation, no matter what name you give it, is an aspirational vision, not a practical reality. Right now, implementing each component in a way that’s integrated into the business requires a lot of heavy lifting — in digital transformation-land there’s no equivalent to buying an ERP system that delivers it all in a coherent, integrated package. And if there was, we’d probably revisit the tired old plain-vanilla vs customization arguments that tie so many ERP implementations in knots.

So no. I’m not advocating a full-steam-ahead, if-there’s-a-computer-involved-somewhere-approve-the-project approach to business investment governance. That would be both unaffordable and stupid.

It’s both simpler and more complicated than that.

Comments (1)

  • This reminds me of when I was a maintenance man right after college, but before I became a programmer. Management was always looking to cut maintenance staff and costs, but always restored all cuts once the consequences came home to roost in the form of unhappy tenants or hospital staff or patients. The job of stationary engineers is to keep the plant running. Sound familiar?

    As with plant maintenance, with IT, management has a difficult time managing something it doesn’t understand, but needs; something it doesn’t see because it is so pervasive, but depends on for survival of the organization.

    My thoughts are that, since most people really don’t understand IT, find regular opportunities to give mini-presentations on what your IT department actually does on a day to day basis, as opposed to what it accomplishes. Unless people know what things IT does, in plain language, they won’t have the background grounded in experience needed to evaluate IT’s, performance, value, or profit center potential to the organization that signs the paycheck.

    Secondly, be aware of the different conation styles in management. People have different natural ways of doing things, just as they have learning styles, so to the degree it is possible, utilize the communication style that is most compatible with the conation style of your audience. I was too stubborn on ignoring this point until I realized one day that all words I was saying to a very bright group of people did very little good for a group whose conation style responded best to graphs and charts.

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