Guest column: Boiling frogs and boiler rooms

I am told that boiling a frog is easy. You put the hapless amphibian in a pot of cold water and heat the pot slowly. The frog, being coldblooded, has no reference for what its body temperature should be and heats up along with the water until it is boiled.

Before you assume that I've changed my dietary habits, please note that I am not offering this as a recipe, but rather as an analogy for what is happening to many IT organisations.

The culprits are, of course, the Internet and electronic commerce. We're all getting heated up by online business, and if we're not careful, before we know it many of us will be killed off -- boiled -- because we're not adapting well to the changing environment.

History is behind the problem. IT started out as a cutting-edge service and grew to become the infrastructure that makes modern business possible. In short, you IT chaps are superstars! At least you should be superstars. Unfortunately, many of you have been reduced to running the "plant". A hugely important plant, but a plant nonetheless.

The plant is something we associate with, for example, the boiler room. In the boiler room people are doing mysterious things with furnaces, pipes, gauges and valves. But who thinks about his company's boiler room? It has become forgotten infrastructure.

Could networks become forgotten infrastructure? Sure, if you let them.

If, for example, you let the job drive you instead of vice versa, all the skill will drain away. I've talked to many IT professionals who complain that the volume of work means that their jobs are to run around firefighting -- they are operating tactically.

Now that's not to say tactical tasks are wrong or can be avoided. Indeed, it isn't possible to run a service of any kind without some form of ad-hoc maintenance -- something that is essentially tactical -- being required. But when most of your work becomes tactical, it is the beginning of the end.

If you are so busy with minutiae that you loose sight of the big picture, your role in the organisation will change. Good-bye forever to superstar status.

This is the being boiled alive that I'm talking about. When you're tactically driven, you don't notice that your goose (or frog) is in the process of being cooked.

We'd like to think that IT is involved in the strategic area of business process improvement, but translating existing business practices into computerized processes is not a strategic role. You can see this kind of mistake on the Internet. Many Web sites fail to improve on the way business is done - they merely replicate existing business methodologies online.

For example, I was trying to order a product from a Web site the other day, and the vendor's strategy for providing service was to display the order form on a Web page and tell me to print it and fill it in on paper. The form was badly laid out and complex, and it wasn't obvious how shipping charges would be applied.

Here's where IT should have grabbed the frog, er, bull by the horns. IT should have seen the opportunity to improve how things were done and provided an interactive process that produced a complete, correct form. Hell, a machine-readable form would be easy to create. But I bet the IT folks were more occupied with tactical stuff.

The only group that can make your company successful is your group -- the IT group.

But if you are obsessed with running the plant, you are not involved with strategic issues. And you run a very big risk of being boiled.

Feeling hot? Frog recipes to nwcolumn@gibbs.com

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