Thornton A. May: A New Kind of IT Hero for a New Kind of World

We stand today on the brink of momentous years, a decade or so that will change how we work, learn, play, pay, heal and relate. All of this interests me, but nothing more so than what it will mean for the provisioning of information technology.

What will change is the very definition of IT leadership success. In the years ahead, achieving success will require a new kind of IT hero.

What top management expects from IT has already changed, and the old kind of IT hero is out of favor. IT success no longer means delivering high-cost, high-complexity and high-maintenance bloatware on time, on budget and at specification.

There are many differences between the old and new kind of IT hero. Multiple generations of IT leaders have been adept at answering questions, fulfilling goals and getting things done. Modern success in IT requires asking questions, setting goals and evaluating whether things are worth doing in the first place. If you want to be an IT leader in the years ahead, you need to be this new type of IT leader. Otherwise, all you will lead is the herd that's heading toward the cliff.

The new species of IT hero that the business world is looking for understands that what really matters in IT value creation is not which technology you buy or how efficiently you deploy what you bought; rather, what matters is the purpose to which you put the cornucopia of technology possibilities available to you. The new IT leaders also know that the only effective way to determine which problems IT needs to solve is to engage intimately and intensely with those using the technology. They must take a page from the commanders of modern American fighting forces, who embed credentialed anthropologists with the front-line troops in "human terrain teams" that engage in "rapid ethnographic assessment" -- conducting interviews, administering surveys, learning about land disputes and social networks, and generally understanding how people think. To go deeper into military history, the new kind of IT hero must be less like Achilles (using brute force on problems) and more like Ulysses (figuring things out and coming up with innovative approaches that no one else ever thought of).

Increasingly, world-class IT organizations will serve as the eyes and ears of the enterprise. The old kind of IT hero looked at business processes and took something away (cost, time or complexity). The new kind of IT hero adds something (insight). The old kind of IT hero was consumed with performing tasks inside the enterprise. The new kind of IT hero is being asked to X-ray and explicate new developments in the external marketplace. A fast-food restaurant chain might ask its IT shop to shed light on artisanal trends in eating and nutrition. An automobile manufacturer might ask IT to flesh out and get inside of the new trend in customizing cars. A cable network might ask IT to figure out why a certain star is a big hit. Such requests are not transactional in nature.

One of the most important new functions of an IT hero is to serve as a sort of DARPA for the enterprise, creating and preventing strategic surprises in much the same way as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has done for the U.S. military. Such vulnerability analysis may involve hunting down assumptions and putting them to the test.

Be sure you do the same with your assumptions about what defines IT success.

Thornton A. May is author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics and executive director of the IT Leadership Academy at Florida State College in Jacksonville. You can contact him at thorntonamay@aol.com .

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