Who needs IT? No one more than IT managers

We have all seen examples of "shoemaker's children" syndrome -- child psychologists whose kids are hopelessly maladjusted, contractors whose own homes are in constant disrepair. And then there's IT.

Is any department more desperately in need of ERP-style, information-at-your-fingertips tools than IT? Is any department less adept at using databases and decision-support systems to make smart business moves? Does any executive have poorer access to numbers that indicate how his team is doing than the CIO?

I talk to lots of IT executives. They're some of the brightest, most motivated people I know. They're able to understand and articulate complex business technology issues with astonishing clarity. And they're really fun to work with.

Amazingly, however, they often can't answer simple questions like "Which boxes suck up more systems administration person-hours, Wintel or Unix?" or "What does it cost you to support a mobile user?" or, more to the point, "What was your total ROI for bringing Java development into the business?"

On one level, that makes their management skills seem even more impressive. Because they lack such metrics, they've got to be tremendously intuitive thinkers.

On the other hand, there's something bizarre and dangerous about this situation. I'm not saying IT managers need to answer my questions with the click of a mouse -- although that's not an unreasonable expectation. But, in many cases, they don't have the necessary information at all.

The consequences of this situation are far-reaching. For example, in the midst of all the year 2000 work, companies are spending lots of money to upgrade machines that are at the end of their leases. Those machines will be retired before December and don't need to be fixed! In fact, because of the scandalous practices of leasing companies, many businesses will be paying for machines month after month -- even after their leases have expired.

But the impact of IT's lack of ERP-style tools goes beyond asset management and cost-efficiency. It also strikes at the heart of IT's effectiveness. For example, IT is playing an increasingly central role in the launch and acquisition of new business units.

An IT manager can't effectively devise a plan to get a new unit up and running without knowing the following: 1) how existing projects and functions are currently consuming finite IT staff resources; 2) what staff resources are needed to meet time-to-market objectives for the new unit; and 3) how existing projects and functions will be affected by any proposed diversion of resources. Without such data, IT simply can't align itself with the business.

Flying by the seat of one's pants was somewhat tolerable when IT was just a back-office infrastructure function. But now that IT has become a critical component of every business process -- and a growing percentage of the corporate budget -- IT executives simply must have better access to higher-quality information about people, assets and financials.

Unfortunately, we're at a chicken-and-egg stage in this market. Certain asset management vendors, such as Peregrine Systems and NetBalance, are starting to deliver the kind of resource data aggregation-and-analysis tools that IT needs. But they have to tread carefully because CIOs haven't defined the requirements of an ERP-for-IT application. And CIOs haven't defined those requirements because they haven't seen anything that they can use as a point of reference yet.

But someone needs to do something fast. IT has become too strategic and too expensive not to have the benefit of solid decision-support tools -- tools that track people and dollars in addition to servers and switches. Without such tools, IT will continue to lack the accountability and credibility it so sorely needs.

And besides, who wants to walk around with holes in their shoes?

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