by Bernard Golden

Yesterday’s advantage is today’s Achilles Heel

Apr 27, 20074 mins
Enterprise Architecture

I recently heard a fascinating podcast on Tech Nation with Dr. Kari Stefansson, CEO of deCODE genetics. deCODE studies genetic variants to understand what makes some individuals more susceptible to diseases than others.

In this podcast he described a genetic variant that raised the production of an enzyme called LTA4H. This enzyme modulates inflammation; that is, it helps increase inflammation. Deep in antediluvian times, this enzyme helped protect people from infections.

Today, however, due to our much longer lifespans, the ability to raise inflammation levels is actually dangerous, since it can lead to atherosclerotic plaques breaking free from blood vessels and thereby cause heart attacks.

In other words, this genetic capability originally conferred an advantage in life, but today, when we can control infections in other ways and therefore live much longer, this formerly helpful solution actually poses a danger to our lives.

This is a metaphor for so many IT infrastructures extant today. Systems installed years ago to help run the business better now are aging, inflexible, unmaintainable, and an enormous hindrance to responding to changing business conditions.

deCODE is researching medical  treatments for these kinds of genetic variants. IT organizations, on the other hand, are incredibly reluctant to modify existing infrastructure.

One has only to look at the burgeoning SOA movement. IT organizations are busily wrapping legacy applications to extend their lives. If you look at this movement from one perspective, it is using a new technology to increase infrastructure flexibility — a smart, financially responsible technical investment.

From another perspective, SOA is like putting lipstick on a pig. It pretties up the pig, but the pig still wallows around in the mud, bloated and grunting (please, no emails from anyone extolling the noble nature of hogs).

Why is it the medical establishment is working on ways to respond to the ultimate in inflexibility — our DNA, but IT organizations are too frightened to do anything but patch up hamstrung systems?

Keeping these aging, limited functionality, unchangeable systems running is a disservice to the company. In fact, they can actually handicap a company’s ability to respond to changing business conditions.

Nicholas Carr, in his infamous book Does IT Matter?, recounted the story of a pharmaceutical company that gained an enormous competitive advantage by placing drug ordering systems in pharmacies. Because it was easier to order drugs through this automated system, pharmacists put more orders through it, and the sponsoring company gained market share. With the rise of the Internet, this system quickly became obsolete and competitors who implemented web-based systems took back lost market share and more. Carr, of course, draws a fatalistic resignation from this sort of situation, and counsels that IT can no longer provide any competitive advantage, so it should be treated as a cost center and have its budgets ground down relentlessly.

However, CEOs think Carr is dead wrong. In a recent study, 99% of CEOs felt that technology is critical to the success of their businesses — but only 32% of them involve their CIOs in strategy creation.

Carr’s guidance leads to exactly the kind of reduced investment, ancient patched-up systems, and reluctance to tinker with anything that’s working, no matter how poorly, that puts CIOs below the salt at the boardroom table.

Every decision to put off modernizing infrastructure because it’s cheaper in the short term to keep systems wheezing along is a decision to remain below the salt. And those companies that follow that approach are the same ones Carr insists can’t get any competitive advantage from IT. Smart companies that treat their infrastructure and systems as a critical resource that requires investment know better.

My question is, where do the 67% of CEOs who don’t look to their CIOs for strategic technology guidance then turn to?