IT…What’s in a Name?

We have a serious “labelling problem” with IT. A few years ago, I was in Melbourne, Australia delivering a lunchtime address on “Meeting the Challenge for IT-Enabled Change” to CEDA (The Committee for Economic Development of Australia). CEDA’s membership includes business and political leaders, and their speakers include CEOs and Prime Ministers, so I saw this as a chance to really get my message across to the “right audience”. However, before starting, I asked for a show of hands from everyone from the IT function – about 90% of the hands went up. Seeing IT in the title, the CEOs had sent their IT guys.

When I started working in this field in 1963, what is now generally referred to as the IT function was described using terms such as Automatic Data Processing (ADP), Electronic Data Processing (EDP), and Computer Services. Over time, this has evolved to Information Systems, with the Data Processing (DP), or Computer Centre Manager role evolving to that of the CIO. Regardless of the name, when we use the term IT, it is the “T” that gets most of the attention, and, as in the case of the CEDA example, leads business leaders including CEOs to assume that anything to do with IT is the domain of the IT function.

While naming may appear to be a cosmetic or semantic issue it is much more than that. Names both create perceptions and carry baggage. The IT name, rightly or wrongly, is, as discussed above,  perceived as being about technology, which usually immediately leads to thinking about the costs of technology, and the name also carries a lot of baggage resulting from the long litany of “failed IT projects”.

It’s not just the non-IT folks that have to change here. On another occasion, I was facilitating a workshop around Value Management with members of the Seattle Chapter of the Society for Information Management (SIM). After the conversation had gone yet again one down a technology “bunny hole”, I made the comment that the organization’s name was SIM, not SIT. In Canada, we have the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS) – I guess that’s a bit better but processing doesn’t quite capture it. In Australia, and in the UK, they have the Australian and British Computer Societies  – that’s even worse! I can remember, several lives ago, interviewing a senior business manager to find out his requirements for a new system – he stopped my line of questioning, saying “What’s this all got to do with you computer guys?”

A few years ago, Forrester and HP tried to address this name issue by introducing the term Business Technology – the problem here is that they got rid of the wrong word. It’s not the technology that’s important – that’s not worth more than you could get for it on eBay, it is the change that the technology both shapes and enables that is important, change of which the technology is only a small part. Much, if not most of that change is enabled by better access to better information and better use of that information, increasingly, turning it into knowledge.

Let’s review a few other terms – data, information, knowledge and, yes, wisdom:

  • Data is just “stuff” – stuff that has to be collected, stored etc.
  • Data + meaning = information which can be acted on
  • Information + experience = knowledge which can result in better informed actions
  • Knowledge, over time, becomes wisdom which can become “conventional wisdom”, or just plain old “common sense”

Reinforcing my belief in parallel universes, a day after I had taken a first cut at this post, and the terms above, I came across  this explanation via Andy Blumenthal, Division Chief, US Department of State (not verbatim) from Dr. Jim Chen. I include this here both to reinforce, and provide a more elegant version of my efforts.

  • Data: This is an alphanumeric entity and/or symbol (ABC, 123, !@#…)
  • Information: This is when entities are related/associated to each other and thereby derive meaning. (Information = Data + Meaning)
  • Knowledge: This is information applied to context. (Knowledge = Data + Meaning + Context)
  • Wisdom: This is knowledge applied to multiple contexts. (Wisdom = Data + Meaning + (Context x N cases)).

In both of these versions, information is the linchpin. Data feeds it and knowledge and wisdom come from it.

So, back to the name. Increasingly today, the role of the CIO, and of their function is being questioned. There is also discussion on changing the meaning of CIO to Chief Innovation Officer. While certainly an improvement on some other proffered meanings including “Career Is Over” and “Challenge Is Impossible”, I don’t believe this is either necessary or wise. The CIO should be the Chief Information Officer, but their role, and the role and name of their function must change – moving from providing infrastructure to being a broker of services (both internal and external – and increasingly external). With this new role, Business Units must accept responsibility for defining the requirements for, meaningful use of, and value creation from these services, with the CIO (and their function) as a trusted partner, helping the other parts of the business:

  • optimize value from existing services;
  • be aware of and understand new value opportunities shaped and  enabled by current, new or emerging technologies,and the scope of business change required to realize value from those opportunities; and
  • evaluate, prioritize, select and execute those opportunities with the highest potential value such that overall business value is maximized.

The two key words here are information and services, so let’s forever drop the term IT function, and refer to it as the Information Services function. This is certainly not earth-shattering – I have worked in and for Information Services functions in the past, and quite a few are still called that today. But, for whatever reason, we have adopted as common usage the term IT function (all too often just abbreviated to IT) – it’s time to put that name, and all the baggage it carries, behind us and move on.

Finally, I am not suggesting we totally eliminate the term IT – there are and always will be the technology aspects, and a there is technology industry. But that is on the supply side. On the demand side, the focus should be on the use of that technology – on Information Services.

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 19, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

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