Reprinted from Computer Weekly, 30 March-5 April 2010
The IT profession seems to be preoccupied with its role: IT leaders often worry about the function’s position relative to the business, and IT professionals view their discipline as something that is distinct from the enterprise in which they work. This is not only dangerous for the profession, but may result in enterprises not optimising the benefits of IT.
If you talk to most people and ask them what they do, they will say that they work for a certain organisation in a specific functional role. So someone might say, “I work for a retail bank and I am in HR.” Yet, when you talk to an IT professional, they will tend to say, “I am a project manager,” or, “I am a business analyst.” They may then qualify that by naming the organisation for which they work.
This use of language is indicative of the person’s world-view. They see themselves as an IT practitioner first rather than someone who works primarily for the benefit of their employer.
There are arguments to support the idea that IT is intrinsically different from other functions, but the information professional’s view about their work inevitably colours how they interact with business colleagues. This psychological distance is the start of the issues with the positioning of IT. So how has this come about?
It all starts with the view that IT should be a profit centre. Under this perspective, IT is seen as a business unit that is charged with a return on the investments in IT. Non-IT departments “pay” for the use of IT services, and IT management must make a return through “negotiating” contracts with users. From this perspective, the information function is seen not as an intrinsic part of the business, but as a service that can be “bought”.
However, positioning the IT function as a profit centre has profound psychological effects on how the IT staff behaves towards business users. It is no longer in IT’s interest to ensure that the most appropriate solution is found. Instead, the task is to negotiate an agreement that ensures the IT function obtains a positive return on its assets and resources.
According to Gwillym Jenkins of Box-Jenkins fame, there are two components to quality. The total quality of a service is a product of the quality of design and the quality of conformance.
So in a profit-centre model, the information function has abrogated its responsibility for the quality of design. Its focus is on the quality of conformance, leaving the responsibility for conceiving the design with the business. Business users are often not well placed to define what the optimal design is. They may well be unduly influenced by suppliers’ hype or ignore aspects such as resilience and security.
In contrast, look at the role of other business professionals. When the finance director implements an improved cost management regime, he or she is responsible for design and conformance. When HR implements a pension package, it is responsible for both design and conformance. Yet, under the profit-centre model, the IT professional abdicates responsibility for what is specified, leaving that to users who may be ill-equipped to do so.
In the complex business environments of the 21st century, with rapid changes in markets, technologies and services, enterprises need IT professionals whose loyalty and commitment is towards the organisation to help make the appropriate decisions. With this in mind, IT professionals should remember five simple rules:
- Don’t give the users what they want
- Listen to what the users want
- Try to figure out what they really need
- Persuade them what they need is really what they want
- Then, give them something even better.
David Chan is director of the Centre for Information Leadership at City University London.