by Jeanne Ross and Cynthia Beath

Survey: More to IT Than Building and Running Systems

Feb 23, 2011
IT Leadership

A survey by CIO and the MIT Center for Information Systems Research finds the IT department role goes beyond delivering systems. Technologists must help companies exploit the technology, too.

Emerging IT roles for application developers, IT-business hybrids, cloud vendor managers and data masters signal a profound shift in the IT unit’s value proposition. (For more about emerging roles in IT, see “Four Kinds of IT Professionals CIOs Need to Hire Now.”)

Traditionally, IT departments have focused on doing two things well: building applications and running IT operations. More recently, their deliverable has shifted from isolated applications to enterprise platforms. Still, IT has been about building and running—providing technology that enhances business performance.

A survey of 370 CIOs by CIO magazine and the MIT Center for Information Systems Research (CISR) suggests that IT units have added a third major responsibility to their traditional build-and-run obligations: technology exploitation. This is the persistent effort to capitalize on a firm’s digital platforms, accumulated data, and new technologies—and it’s IT’s new value proposition.

Technology exploitation requires developing enterprisewide digital capabilities, such as business process optimization, master data management, business analytics and use of social media for collaboration. Our survey found that 88 percent of IT units are developing, maturing and sustaining these capabilities. More than a third of CIOs said their department has more responsibility for providing the staff and expertise for these digital capabilities than the business does.

Although there’s still a need to run IT operations and build systems, IT units should recognize that their longer-term value proposition revolves around ensuring that their firms are exploiting technology for increased competitiveness. Through its research, MIT CISR has found that some IT units are already morphing—becoming focused on business transformation, global business process design and management, or delivery of shared services. Other IT units are creating new centers of excellence or cross-functional teams responsible for emerging digital needs like master data management and social media strategy.

Currently, no single model for the IT organization captures this new value proposition, but it’s time for CIOs to start experimenting with not only new roles, but also new structures, which will change the definition of the IT unit from technology provider to technology exploiter. IT professionals in new roles will help CIOs execute the organizational changes to come.

Jeanne Ross is director and principal research scientist with the MIT Center for Information Systems Research. Cynthia Beath is professor emerita at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.