The Futility of Blaming IT

In recent years, it has become popular sport to blame information technology (IT) departments and IT leaders for failures – real or imagined – which adversely impact business operations.  Even some technology trade journals seem unable to get through a single issue without finding some point upon which to lambast a CTO or CIO for not “stepping up to the plate”, or adding value, or some other business sin.

This trend was clearly seen in two recent articles on InformationWeek (6 Ways IT Still Fails The Business and 5 Ways Business Still Fails IT), the first of which generated a firestorm of responses.  Sadly, even with all the worthy rebuttals, there were key points that I felt went unstated.

Of the many “IT is a failure” complaints which are regularly made, I propose to challenge two of the most popular:

  1. The IT department is too focused on the technology and not on business initiatives or innovation.
  2. The IT department is just not effective for the business
    (not skilled, not motivated, too costly, too slow, etc.)


Technology for Technology’s Sake

If you take a good look where organizations are spending a lot of time and effort today, it is likely on “Big Data,” Social Media, Mobile Computing, and Cloud Computing. Now, take a moment and ask yourself, was it IT that asked for spending on these initiates, or did the requests originate elsewhere in the organization?

Who was it that decided that it would be a good idea to allow consumer devices onto the corporate network, in the first place? Given the negative feedback from the vast majority of my friends and colleagues, I’ll bet that it wasn’t the IT department.

Who was it that determined that social media was vital to the business? I’m guessing that the answer is not IT.

These are just a few of most recent examples of embracing technology for technology’s sake.  And, they make good examples because there are very few organizations that have taken the time to analyze and document the anticipated benefit these technologies are supposed to bring them. Most of these initiates were not pursued because of a compelling cost-benefit analysis, but because a senior executive read something on an airplane or heard something while on the golf course. Yet, it is the IT team that gets blamed for a myopic focus on technology.

There may have been a time where IT was focused on implementing technology for its inherent coolness, but that hasn’t been a problem for at least a decade. Virtualization, VoIP, Blade Servers, Gigabit (and 10Gbit) networking have all been implemented for real benefits, including business flexibility, better cost management, improved security, and streamlined operations.  Of course, those investments required brutal cost-benefit analysis and substantial vendor negotiations, not just a “make it so” mandate from one or two executives.

Frankly, the truth is that most IT departments are spending too little time focused on the technologies they are being asked to rapidly evaluate and deploy.  Due to the sheer number of projects that must be managed simultaneously, most IT departments have little time to spend in proper planning, much less proper deployment. As I mentioned a little over a year ago, technology is getting more complicated, not less complicated, and this means that more time should be devoted to planning and deploying robust architectures, yet the opposite continues to occur – and IT gets all the blame.

Organizations don’t want to make the necessary investments in security or long-term technology operations, but they just know that giving everyone an iPad is going to add revenue to the business in some magical way.


Ineffective/Useless IT

This complaint is the one that raises my eyebrow the most. If IT is really worthless, then why do organizations put up with them?  Who is really to blame for an organization having a lame and ineffective IT team?  Do the people in IT hire themselves? Are they the ones that set their own job descriptions, and then show up and start paying themselves?  Does an organization just wake up one day and find that it has an IT staff which descended from the sky and took up residence, but cannot be removed?

It is as ridiculous for an organization to complain about its inadequate and ineffective IT team or IT leader, as it is for a person to complain that his or her arm is not doing what the rest of the body wants or needs.  Short-term failure can be blamed on a person or a team, but long-term failure of any department is ultimately a reflection of the senior leadership of the organization.  This is why, in sports, coaches and general managers get fired for extended team failure – even to a greater extent than players get traded.  (Yes, salary dynamics are a factor, of course, and not every firing is a fair or accurate one, but those leaders are paid big bucks to make things work, and they pay the price when they cannot).

Most organizations end up with the IT department that they deserve.  Companies are either unwilling to pay for what they need, or they fail to seek the right skill sets, or they fail to cultivate an environment where growth, training and mentoring are readily available.  Many organizations fail to provide sufficient time or resources to accomplish things properly, then they wonder why they can’t hold on to people who are interested in doing things properly.

In my experience, organizations that have a culture of good planning and good communication, tend to have good alignment between all their departments. Similarly, those companies which have very fluid and shifting business “plans,” and which make adjustments by the seat of their pants – with little in the way of good communication – tend to have a lot of conflict between departments and department heads.

Lots of literature over the past decade has been focused on telling IT just how it should behave to be more successful in the business.  Some of that has, admittedly, been useful.  Yet, if even a third of that literature, had sought to teach business leaders about their role and responsibility in having good IT teams, there would have been even more significant gains for organizations. Organizations that don’t want IT to be a cost center, should stop treating IT like a cost center.  Organizations that want IT to lead innovation, should create a culture where IT can lead or contribute significantly to innovation.

In sports, owners have learned to build their teams around the skill sets of the players that they have, or go out and find the players that they want, so they can build the type of team they want.  It is quite silly to deliberately hire people who can only build cars, then call them inadequate and delinquent because you really want to build your business around producing airplanes.

Look at how many super hyped IT outsourcing deals fail – because the problem was NOT necessarily with IT, but with the business in general.  Outsourcing what is not well managed or understood does not suddenly make it better managed or understood.


Conclusion

Organizations hurt themselves when:

…they are unwilling to take the time to understand any of the implications of the technologies they plan to deploy.

…they are unwilling to listen to the people they have hired to manage the technology they use.

…they don’t take the time to integrate all of their teams and resources into every business initiative in a holistic fashion.

…they think that blaming IT actually solves a problem or makes them look superior in any way.

If an organization’s IT department and IT leader are not up to par, maybe senior management should spend some time determining if they have identified what par is, and if they have communicated that adequately to anyone else, like HR or IT itself.

Business leaders: It’s time for you to step up to the plate and get involved in making the organization you say you want.  Blaming others for situations and outcomes which are ultimately yours to manage is nothing less than an acknowledgement of your own poor leadership.

IT leaders: It’s time for you to take control of your career, and provide a better career path for your team members by taking advantage of your unique placement within your organization. From your vantage point, you can see how everything that the business is doing ties together, and you can anticipate ways to add value and reduce risk.  Don’t allow this competitive advantage to be wasted. Remember: accountability without authority (or suitable influence) is simply a fool’s errand, and you have no time for that.

Industry Pundits: Yes, it makes you more popular with businesses to bash IT mercilessly, but let’s be real: IT failure is senior executive failure.  Maybe you should take the time to tell them that on occasion. It will be better for everyone involved.

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