by Abbie Lundberg

What’s in a Name… Or, Should IT Go Back Where It Belongs?

Nov 15, 20077 mins
IT Leadership

Would it matter if people stopped calling strategic IT “IT”?

I’m beginning a new venture today – a blog. It’s not that I’ve never posted anything before, but those sporadic posts were the equivalent of me standing on the bank of the river, tossing a few sticks into the current to see where they’d end up – if they’d get swept into the main flow or snag on the rest of the flotsam cluttering up the stream. I didn’t care a whole lot about the fate of the sticks. This has been a completely insufficient way to become part of the many interesting conversations taking place – about stuff I care a lot about — or to learn how communication itself is changing. So I figure I’d better just go ahead and commit to full-body immersion, even though I’m not exactly sure where I’ll end up or what lies beneath.

The Focus of My BlogThe conversations I want to get engaged in have to do with how technology is changing business (and other types of organizations), and what that means for decision-making around and management of IT. I will report on interesting new applications of technology and the people behind them; I’ll also, no doubt, engage in more general discussions of what are and aren’t effective means of achieving real value from IT.

But I’ve been getting hung up this morning thinking about names.

Business Technology

Forrester Research has been pushing the idea of a shift from “information technology” to “business technology.” They describe business technology as “pervasive technology use that boosts business results.” Funny, I thought that was pretty much the path we’ve been on since IT stopped being MIS. While I agree that technology has become more pervasive, and the value shift from cost savings to top-line growth has certainly been gathering momentum, I don’t see why that means we need to change the name.

Note: CIO Magazine changed its tagline two years ago to Business Technology Leadership as an acknowledgment of these shifts and the increasingly central role played by IT — not as a suggestion that there’s anything wrong with the moniker.

Forrester also says that “through capabilities like software-as-a-service, BPO, outsourcing and Web 2.0, business organizations are enabled to make their own way with technology.” Presumably without the help of IT or a CIO. That should make the IT folks sit up and take notice!

Forrester’s not the only voice singing this song. In a post titled, Is Web 2.0 Business Peoples’ Revenge for SOA? FASTForward blogger Joe McKendrick quotes ZDNet’s Phil Wainewright as saying about IT professionals: “They’ve turned SOA into a huge infrastructure project that takes years to come to fruition, and in the meantime, the business people don’t get much of a look at what’s going on. In a way, Web 2.0 is the business peoples’ revenge.”

It’s not hard to see their point. If businesspeople think they can get what they need by picking up a few widgets, why wouldn’t they get impatient with a massive infrastructure project that’s going to cost a lot of money and take a lot of time before they get what they want?

Still, the fact that regular Joes like the VP of sales can now go and sign up with doesn’t warrant changing what the technology is called. If what we’re talking about is still technology to help businesses gather, leverage and exploit information, then it doesn’t matter who’s doing the spec’ing or the negotiating – it’s still information technology.

Quick aside: Forrester has some pretty interesting data around technology selection, purchase and management. In a survey of 186 global business executives, 25% said they were either completely responsible (6%) or at least more responsible than IT (19%) for directly negotiating with and/or directly managing solution vendors. And another 23% said they were either completely responsible (7%) or more responsible than IT (16%) for directly selecting vendor-offered solutions. The numbers for sales and marketing technology were even higher. Something different there.

Maybe I’m getting too distracted by the nomenclature. Whatever you call it, Forrester’s done some interesting work around what’s happening and what it means for technology management. I spoke with Forrester’s Bobby Cameron the other day. Cameron’s the co-author, with Laurie Orlov, of the May 2007 Forrester report “Business Technology Defined.” He’s a smart, thoughtful, down-to-earth guy, and he’s pretty jazzed about this business technology thing.

What’s Business, What’s Technology?Cameron argues that the technology that belongs with and will continue to belong with IT consists of the first six layers of the seven-layer ISO model (including things like infrastructure, operations, transaction development, post merger integration and data modeling) plus a chunk of the top application layer (things like classes of problems, transaction processing, two-phase commit, data currency, etc.). The very top of the application layer is where you find business technology, and increasingly, it is being conceived, acquired and managed by people inside the groups that are taking advantage of it.

This is great! This is what good CIOs have been pushing for years.

So What’s the Problem?

The problem, if there is one, comes about in organizations where the CIO has not been involved in this evolution but has stayed removed from “the business.” (You’ll note the use of quotes; CIOs who get this go nuts when anyone talks about business as a separate thing.) So let’s say, instead: CIOs who have failed to engage line of business execs or other business colleagues in technology decisions and actions beyond the basics of requirements gathering are likely to get pushed down the stack into what will continue to be purely IT. Businesspeople eager to change how they do things by leveraging technology have too many viable options today (software as a service, business process outsourcing) to continue to wrestle with an IT department they feel is holding them back.

While this is a problem for CIOs who long for but don’t know how to achieve a more strategic role, it’s a bigger problem for the organizations they work in if those businesspeople go off half cocked. “Business folks doing custom-built software as a service without the involvement of IT [will create] insidious, high-risk exposures” for their organizations, Cameron says. Not to mention the fact that, as Diamond Technologies Vice Chair John Sviokla points out, different parts of the stack are evolving at different rates. Conclusion: If the link between the technologists and the businesspeople is broken, things are going to get ugly. That link is concentrated in the CIO, but only so long as the CIO enables businesspeople to do what they want to do more quickly and more easily.

Cameron’s advice to CIOs? He invokes Yogi Berra : “There’s a fork in the road; take it.” Meaning, don’t dither. Step up. Embrace change. Stop trying to figure it all out in advance.

Cameron believes CIOs will increasingly come from backgrounds other than IT; Forrester’s data shows that 35 percent of North American CIOs come from non-IT backgrounds; our own State of the CIO data is slightly lower at 30 percent. I’ll poke at this fact in a future post.

The Name Thing…

So back to where I started. Has the term IT outlived its usefulness? Is it time to retire it or, as I think Forrester is suggesting, to split it up and turn over the fun stuff (the value adding applications) to the businesspeople, renamed BT, and leave the rest (keeping the engines running) as IT? Is this a useful way to describe what’s going on or, perhaps more important, to start generating business value faster? Or is this IT throwing in the towel and saying they can’t or won’t understand the business? I know what the businesspeople think: If you don’t throw in the towel, we’ll come down to your Fortress IT cubicle and rip it out of your hands. If IT leaders let that happen, they’ll only have themselves to blame.

What do you think?