The Digital Economy and the IT Value Standoff

The emerging  digital economy, and the promise and challenges that it brings, including the need to shift focus beyond reducing cost to creating value, are adding fuel to the seemingly never-ending discussion about the role of the IT function, and the CIO.  There is questioning of the very need for and/or name of the position, and the function they lead. Discussions around the need for a CDO, the so-called battle between the CMO and the CIO for the “IT budget”, and other similar topics proliferate ad nauseam. Unfortunately, most, although not all of these discussions appear to be about the technology itself, along with associated budgets power and egos, within a traditional siloed organizational context. This akin to shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic, or putting lipstick on a pig – it’s way past time for that!  As technology becomes embedded in and across everything we do, and we are increasingly becoming embedded in everything technology does, we have to acknowledge that the way we have managed technology in the past will be a huge impediment to delivering on the promise of the Digital Economy. Indeed, it has proven woefully inadequate to deliver on the promise of technology for decades.

Recent illustrations of this include failed, or significantly challenged healthcare projects in the U.S., Australia, and the U.K.as well as disastrous payroll implementations in Queensland, New Zealand and California (you would really think that we should be able to get payroll right). And this situation is certainly not unique to the public sector, although these tend to be more visible. In the private sector, a large number of organizations continue to experience similar problems, particularly around large, complicated ERP, CRM and Supply Chain systems.

All too often, these situations are described as “IT project” failures. In most cases, while there may have been some technology issues, this is rubbish. As I and others have said many times before, the ubiquitous use of the term “IT project” is a symptom of the root cause of the problem. Labelling and managing investments in IT-enabled business change, as IT projects, and abdicating accountability to the CIO is a root cause of the failure of so many to generate the expected payoff. Business value does not come from technology alone – in fact, technology in and of itself is simply a cost. Business value comes from the business change that technology increasingly shapes and enables. Change of which technology is only one part – and increasingly often only a small part. Technology only contributes to business value when complementary changes are made to the business – including increasingly complex changes to the organizational culture, the business model, and the the operating model, as well as to  relationships with customers and suppliers, business processes and work practices, staff skills and competencies, reward systems, organizational structures, physical facilities etc.

From my many previous rants about our failure to unlock the real value of IT-enabled change, regular visitors to this blog will know that I am particularly hard on non-IT business leaders, starting with Boards and CEOs, for not stepping up to the plate. When it comes to IT, the rest of the business, from the executive leadership down, has expected the IT function to deliver what they ask for, assuming little or no responsibility themselves, until it came time to assign blame when the technology didn’t do what they had hoped for. The business change that IT both shapes and enables must be owned by business leaders, and they must accept accountability, and be held accountable for creating and sustaining business value from that change. This cannot be abdicated to the IT function.

However, having spent quite a lot of time over the last few months speaking with CIOs and other IT managers, it has been brought home to me that some, possibly many of them are just as much at fault. There appear to be a number of different scenarios, including CIOs who:

  1. “Get it” and are already seen as a valued member of the executive team, providing leadership in the emerging digital economy;
  2. “Get it”, but have been unable, and, in some cases,  given up trying to get the rest of the executive team to step up to the plate;
  3.  Sort of “get it”, but don’t know how to have the conversation with the executive team;
  4. May “get it”, but are quite happy to remain  passive “order-takers”; or
  5. Don’t “get it”, still believing that IT is the answer to the world’s problems, and don’t want to “give up control”.

The result, in all too many cases, is a stand-off where the business doesn’t want to take ownership, and the IT function doesn’t know how, or doesn’t want to give up control. As Jonathan Feldman said in a recent InformationWeek post, “..enterprise IT, like government IT, believes in the big lie of total control. The thought process goes: If something lives in our datacenter and it’s supplied by our current suppliers, all will be well…my observation is that the datacenter unions at enterprises want “the cloud” to look exactly like what they have today, factored for infrastructure staff’s convenience, not the rest of the supply chain’s.” Until this standoff is resolved, the “train wrecks” will continue, and we will continue to fail to come anywhere near realizing the full economic, social and individual value that can be delivered from IT-enabled change.

At the root of all this is what I described in an earlier post as The real alignment challenge – a serious mis-alignment between enterprises whose leaders have an ecosystem mindset, and adopt mechanistic solutions to change what are becoming increasingly complex organisms. But it’s also more than this – in a recent strategy+business recent post, Susan Cramm talked about “the inability of large organizations to reshape their values, distribution of power, skills, processes, and jobs”. The sad fact is that, as organizations get bigger, an increasing amount of attention is spent looking inward, playing the “organizational game”, with inadequate attention paid to the organizations raison d’être, their customers, or their employees. As Tom Waterman said, “eventually, time, size and success results in something that doesn’t quite work.” Increasingly today, it results in something that is, or will soon be quite broken.

Most of the focus of the conversation about the digital economy today is on improving the customer experience, as indeed it should be – although we have been saying the same for decades with, at best, mixed success. We will come nowhere close to  achieving that success unless we put equal focus on our people, and rethinking how we govern, manage and organize for the digital economy such that we maximize the return on our information and our people.

This will require that leaders truly lead – moving beyond tactical leadership, aka managing, to strategic and transformational leadership. That we move from a cult of individual leadership – “the leader”, to a culture of pervasive leadership – enabling and truly empowering leadership throughout the organization- putting meaning to that much-abused term “empowerment”. That we break the competitive, hierarchical, siloed view and move to a more collaborative, organic  enterprise-wide view. The technology exists to support this today – what is lacking is the leadership mindset, will and capability make the change. As Ron Ashkenas said in a 2013 HBR blog – “The content of change management is reasonably correct, but the managerial capacity to implement it has been woefully underdeveloped”.

I am not saying that this will be easy easy to do – it isn’t, very little involving organization, people and power is. And somehow, throwing in technology seems to elevate complexity to a new dimension. And we certainly don’t make it any easier with the ever-growing proliferation of books, frameworks, methods, techniques and tools around the topic. Many of which have evolved out of the IT world, and are, as a result, while intellectually correct, often over-engineered and bewilderingly complex to executives and business managers who need to “get this”.

So, let’s get back to the basics – governance is about what decisions need to be made, who gets to make them, how they are made and the supporting management processes, structures, information and tools to ensure that it is effectively implemented, complied with, and is achieving the desired levels of performance. It’s not about process for process sake, analysis paralysis, endless meetings, or stifling bureaucracy – it’s about making better decisions by finding the right balance between intellectual rigour and individual judgement. In a previous post, Back to the Basics – the Four “Ares” I introduced the four questions that should be the foundation for that decision-making:

  1. Are we doing the right things?
  2. Are we doing them the right way?
  3. Are we getting them done well?
  4. Are we getting the benefits?

A common reaction to the four “ares” is that they are common sense. Indeed they are, but, unfortunately, they are far from common practice! if business leadership to move beyond words in addressing the challenge of creating and sustaining value from investments in enterprise computing, social media, mobility, big data and analytics, the cloud etc. emphasis must be placed on action—on engagement and involvement at every level of the enterprise,  with clearly defined structure, roles and accountabilities for all stakeholders related to creating and sustaining value. The four “ares” are a good place to start!

 

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  1. […] The Digital Economy and the IT Value Standoff, por John Thorp, 11 de febrero 2014. […]

  2. […] entregue valor en los procesos de transformación,  tal y como nos dice Jon Thorpe en su entrada “La economía digital y la parálisis en la entrega de valor por parte de IT”, hay que repetidamente hacerse las siguientes preguntas por parte de los altos responsables de cada […]

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