Stop kicking the IT department

I need to have a rant. Why is it that everyone wants to have a good kick at IT right now? Every week there is a new report of the levels of CEO disgruntlement with IT, yet there are no reports (or at least none that are published) that defend the role that IT plays in business. The IT professional is now a much maligned breed.

All this IT-kicking seemed to start after Y2K. I suspect it was in retaliation for there being no Y2K-induced plane crashes, that the phones kept working, our money didn't vanish overnight from our bank accounts, and we didn't have to retreat to our backyard bunkers to eat baked beans while the world as we knew it fell apart. So the perception of IT people was that they made a fuss about nothing, and the billions of dollars spent were a bad investment. From then on, IT has had to live with a big target painted on its backside.

A recurring theme to most of these reports of CEO unhappiness is that the dastardly vendors over-hyped the promise of their products. Hullo? This is news? I would have thought that the term caveat emptor is known and understood by most people, and due care taken when separating vendor hyperbole from reality. These days, the buyer is most often found in the business side of the organisation, and they often want to believe what the vendor told them. In fact, they want to believe so much that they don't pay enough attention to the capability of their organisation to accept what is a truly significant change in the way their business will operate. A failure to identify a project champion at the highest level in the organisation, and a failure to drive the project through the organisation, are the root causes of most major project failures. Sure, there are IT failures, and late delivery of functionality by vendors, but most of the blame for failed implementations can be sheeted home to poor management. The fearsomely expensive implementations of SAP R3 that are the most frequent targets of vitriol and derision are perfect examples of this failing as are the current crop of CRM projects. They are failing because management has not recognised that a CRM implementation is only 20 per cent technology. The other 80 per cent is massive cultural change throughout the entire organisation; if that cannot be achieved, then no amount of spending on technology will save the project.

What is missing in this debate is the fact that IT is much more than just new, high-profile applications. IT is mostly about infrastructure and the people that run it. Infrastructure is to the modern organisation what plumbing is to the modern office building, but not nearly as glamorous.

Running the IT infrastructure for the modern business or government department has to be the most thankless job around. When IT systems work (which is nearly all the time), nobody, repeat nobody, outside of the IT department notices. Yet when something goes wrong, IT invariably cops the kick in the bum. As a network manager said to me once, "no one ever calls just to say 'thanks for the dial tone'". CIOs get remembered for their failures, not for their abilities to keep the nervous system of the organisation in top operating condition, so it is no wonder that the average life expectancy of the CIO sank to less than two years during the latter half of the 90s. Expectations from the business side have escalated phenomenally over the last ten years, and it is clear that there is not going to be any reduction of the pressure. The biggest of these pressures is now the level of spending on IT. On average, around 75 to 80 per cent of the IT budget is spent on maintaining an infrastructure status quo. So that leaves only about 20 to 25 per cent of the budget for the CIO to spend on projects that will change the fortunes of their organisation and get them noticed, in the nicest way, by the CEO. Thus CIOs now spend a lot of their short lives attempting to move funding around to meet the twin demands of new business initiatives and personal survival. If the business plan fails so does IT.

IT has delivered, and will continue to deliver value to the modern organisation if it is evaluated in the full context. It is the level of understanding and communication between business and IT that has failed.

Chris Morris is principal of Morris & Patryn.

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