4 pitfalls to avoid when defining IT’s mission in the digital age

As business undergoes a massive digital transformation, IT's mission statement needs to evolve as well. Here's what NOT to include in an effective, aspirational mission definition for the modern IT organization. (SPOILER: It's time to leave "enablement" and "cost-effectiveness" behind!)

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Agreeing on a mission statement is a healthy, worthwhile exercise for any organization or department. IT is no exception. The IT mission is a clear expression of the department’s self-perception and shared purpose.

As we forge ahead in the digital age, IT departments are starting to make up the majority of most organizations’ investment, operations, and risk. Thus, the term “IT is the business” has taken hold. Therefore, the further along your organization overall is on its digital journey, the more the IT mission should resemble the overall organization’s mission. In fact, taken to its logical extreme, the best practice would be to repeat the organization’s mission as IT’s mission.

If “IT is the business,” then IT strategy is the business strategy

Now that we are oriented to what the mission should resemble, let’s talk about what to avoid in an IT mission statement. IT is a complex organism with lots of internal and external functions. As a result, all too often we end up with a list of operational references in the mission statement.

Sure, keeping the lights on (KTLO) is a big part of what many IT departments do today. But an effective mission statement is forward-looking. If you are undergoing a digital transformation, I urge you to drop KTLO elements from your mission statement.

The most common pitfalls to avoid when defining a mission for IT:

1. IT is about cost savings

Too many IT mission statements focus on being cost effective. These always make me wonder, isn’t the whole organization supposed to be cost effective, not just IT? Self-identifying as “cost effective” frames IT as a cost center. And I hope your department is better than that.

2. IT is a service provider

When people talk about “IT as a service”, they are typically referring to what IT does for its internal technology users. The IT mission can be about service, as long as it is referencing service to the end customers of the organization.

3. IT is about technology

Hopefully I am not the first to tell you IT doesn’t actually need all this technology. The majority of the department specializes in understanding it, but it is the overall organization and its customers that need the technology. The whole enterprise owns the technology. Let’s share the ownership as well as the mission. IT is about technology to the same extent that the enterprise is.

4. IT provides solutions, capabilities, enablement or stewardship

Technology can be thought of as the blood of the organization, and IT is the heart, pumping the blood to all the organs. This makes the whole body work. But stating that IT “provides solutions” or “enables through technology” inevitably boxes the department into sounding like a supporting character, not the star of the show that it needs to be in the digital age.

Understanding what IT is not can unleash its potential

Michael Porter cleverly noted, “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” In this post, I’ve listed what IT is not. Hopefully, this helps you convince stakeholders that the IT mission should evolve to mirror the overall organization’s mission, and not anything else.

What if KTLO is in the cards for now?

There are organizations that have not yet taken the digital transformation plunge. Many of them will expect nothing but KTLO from IT for a while. In this case, some elements of operations will inevitably work their way into the IT mission statement.

But please, avoid phrasing the IT mission as “to maintain mediocre technology solutions at a minimum cost.” Replace “cost effective” with “effective.” Replace “stewardship” with “leadership.” Replace “service provider” with “partner.” In a year or two, when the digital program is firing on all cylinders, revisit and elevate the IT mission to match the scope of the organization’s mission.

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