by Jerry Gregoire

Peer To Peer – The Vanishing IT Department

Jun 01, 20047 mins

The good news is, the CIO role is safe and will continue to thrive over the long term.

The bad news is that at most companies, the information technology department that many of us knew and all of us aspired to have, is finished. In spite of what you might have heard, this is not a matter of available talent. Declining undergraduate enrollment in computer science and related fields is neither the cause nor the effect, but simply a convenient and utterly dopey excuse for this slow-motion train wreck. What is killing IT are lowered expectations, simplified missions and generously elastic notions of identity. One day soon you may wake up and find that just because your title says CIO and you’re running a department, it doesn’t mean you’re running an IT department.

Here’s what I mean. At the last CIO 100 conference, one of the speakers made reference to the paradox of the Ship of Theseus, a reflection on how much change something can tolerate and still maintain its identity. You’ll no doubt recall that Theseus was the guy who entered the labyrinth to slay the Minotaur. When he sailed back to Athens he received a hero’s welcome, and his ship became famous by association, sailing in parades long after he died as a tribute to his grand achievement. In between the parades, a crew would take the ship on a tour of the Mediterranean and as they sailed, the ship would need a few repairs. After many years of voyaging, every piece of the ship, every plank, and every bit of tackle and rope was replaced until not a single original piece remained. And still every year the crew sailed the ship in the annual parades as Theseus’s ship.

As it happens, the entire time the ship was sailing and making its repairs, a scavenger ship of exactly the same design, but in far worse shape, was following. As the Theseus crew members made repairs they would throw the old parts overboard, which the scavenger ship’s crew scooped up and used to replace their ship’s even older parts. Over the years, every piece of the scavenger ship, every plank, and every bit of tackle and rope was replaced with the discarded parts of Theseus’s ship. So, who has Theseus’s ship?

Bits and pieces of your department have already been thrown overboard. How many more before you don’t have an IT department anymore?

Know-Nothing IT

For whatever reason, many companies have lost the confidence to make technology investments. So now they task the IT department with coordinating the installation of somebody else’s software and negotiating contracts with outside companies to keep systems running on networks, servers and workstations that are being monitored by yet another collection of third parties. For these firms, this voluntary and catastrophic loss of internal capability is worth the comfort of knowing that they need not worry about a shortage of IT talent and that keeping up with everybody else is simply a matter of being skilled in contract negotiations. One has to wonder whether companies like these will be able to buy their way into every new idea that comes along.

In this brave new world of shedding capability for certainty, IT leadership teams with no technology background are becoming far more common. With them comes the mistaken belief that understanding the tools and their potential is somehow the same as knowing how to use them, like knowing how to work a telephone is the same as knowing how it works. Do you know how a telephone works? I don’t. Do you know how a proxy server works? Of course you do. Unfortunately, many of your newly minted CIO colleagues don’t.

Yes, this matters.

Consider for a moment that, given an hour or two of reading an instruction manual and a few hours looking over a dentist’s shoulder, I could probably do a passable job of pulling teeth. So why doesn’t that make me a dentist? Well, because I’d be helpless if anything went wrong during the extraction, and since pulling teeth is the only thing I know how to do, a pulled tooth is exactly what every patient who comes through my door is going to get. CIOs with no formal training or long-term experience in IT are not CIOs. They’re just very nice people from other disciplines sent in to make sure IT doesn’t do anything dangerous or exciting. The same goes for the rest of the IT leadership.

For those companies and departments that continue to believe that IT is a source of competitive advantage and differentiation?the good news is that while the number of kids graduating with degrees in computer science may be declining, the amount of new talent remains the same. Let me explain.

An amazingly large number of kids are very pragmatic about the decisions they make concerning majors. They might have always dreamed of being a cowboy or a fireman, but when it comes time to fork over the tuition, they go for the major that gets them the hot job. Five years ago?when IT and the nested absurdities of reengineering, ERP and the new economy were hot?colleges were turning out graduates by the tens of thousands. And there were huge talent shortages then! In those days, one of (maybe) every three graduates we interviewed at Dell had a real passion for the profession. Today, only the kids with a passion for IT are left.

What’s missing among companies who have given up on IT is the energy to chase this talent down. Now, as then, the success of an organization hangs on its ability to recruit and retain. While this may sound obvious, I think that the vast majority of IT managers are very, very poor recruiters.

Outsourcing Is for the Lazy

There are three immutable and unpleasant truths about information technology staffing and retention that make outsourcing the dodge of choice for the incompetent and lazy: 1. Turnover is expensive; 2. Retention rate is the most accurate indicator of leadership quality; and 3. Recruiting is the hardest job an IT manager has.

It is far easier to “order” a programmer, as one might order in a pizza so as not to have to cook, than to sell someone on joining the organization. We pay dearly for outsourcers and consultants that arrest the development of our organizations’ internal capabilities and cause us to place the future well-being of our company in the hands of people who have no emotional stake or connection to our business.

So, what kind of IT organization do you aspire to have? If you yearn for adequate results on vanilla systems in pursuit of dial-tone regularity, forget about talent shortages and go find yourself a good contract lawyer. If, on the other hand, you still believe IT can make a competitive difference and that even the more mundane tasks can be a channel of competitive advantage given a little creative effort, then developing and retaining a professional organization should be your number-one goal. If it is, I thank you and wish you the very best.