Opinion: The unspoken truth about why your IT sucks

Version 2.0

Editor's note: The author was not satisfied with the way he expressed himself in the article as it originally appeared, and so he has rewritten it extensively. The article below is substantially different from what was posted on Dec. 1, though the overall message remains the same. As the author told us, "I believe the message is important enough to get it right."

A couple of months ago, the author wrote "The unspoken truth about managing geeks" to illustrate how common, fundamental flaws produce stereotypical behaviors among IT professionals. These flaws have a source, he writes in his current column, and they cost an incalculable amount of time and money.

Garbage

Back in the fifth grade, I was in a school musical, The GIGO Effect, in which the evil Glitches attempted to corrupt a computer named Mabel with "dirty power." The point of the show was that technology is unable to produce intelligent results without intelligent direction, a truism encapsulated in the formerly popular computer acronym GIGO, "garbage in, garbage out."

Computerworld columnist Jeff Ello
Jeff Ello

I don't think any business leaders are inclined to get their insights on running IT from a bunch of singing fifth-graders, but they could do worse (and generally do, to tell the truth). Intelligent direction is a product of competence, which IT professionals view as a mix of technical knowledge, creativity and judgment.

Everyone prefers competence. Everyone wants to do the right thing. But just as IT pros act and react logically according to their perceptions, so do the executives who employ them. Both approach IT with the same intention, but the outcome -- for lack of a better term -- sucks. And it sucks more as time goes on.

Don't take my word for it; ask your own IT pros or someone else's. Read any IT or CIO survey over the past couple of decades and you'll find that the same problems reported this year have been reported every year. Do a little more research and you'll find that IT morale is disturbingly low, stress is ridiculously high, and the best people are lost to burnout while the worst are rewarded. Project success rates are as comically low as the average term of a CIO is conveniently short. IT is assaulted by snake oil salesmen and extremists from the churches of IT outsourcing, insourcing or whatever-sourcing who promise that their latest buzzword will save everyone in tidy, graphable ways.

But there is a bright side. Organizations that do IT very well are no different than those lost in the sucking vacuum of the GIGOsphere. But they have a tool that allows business leaders and IT professionals to speak, at least in part, the same language. Be it subconscious or by epiphany, they have stumbled upon a definition.

Definition

"Engineering" is a term that is thrown around in "advoun" form -- not quite adjective, verb or noun, and meaningless out of context. We differentiate mechanical vs. electrical, civil vs. nuclear, even train vs. sanitation. The all-encompassing IT industry, however, can't even decide what to call itself decade to decade, much less what to call many of its unique disciplines. So, you can't really blame the executives for wielding the term "IT" with the same level of precision as "dude."

But I have observed that where IT is done well, it is referred to in very narrow organizational terms. I have done my best to reduce these to a definition:

Information technology is the art of managing an organization's processes by establishing and maintaining computing frameworks.

I know this is not the Wikipedia definition (feel free to add it). This definition has an advantage, by clearly distinguishing IT's ultimate role in an organization from all of the highly computer-dependent tasks that organization may undertake. And that helps executives and IT professionals come together on many perplexing topics, such as:

Counting

Imagine a CPA firm with five staff accountants handling the finances, and 100 CPAs who work with customers. They are all accountants, all doing "accounting work," but with respect to the organization, only the five staff accountants are the company's accountants, because that's the role they fill. Pretty obvious, right?

Yet few think twice about counting everyone whose work primarily involves a computer as an IT person, no matter what role they fill. Hiring a person to design a public Web site for your company, for example, is an advertising job. Having a group of people develop an iPhone app is production work. Having your DBA pull financial reports because he's a whiz at writing SQL queries simply means a portion of his FTE now belongs to the business office rather than IT.

Lumping clearly divergent roles into IT is a real problem, whether done naively or intentionally. Executives know the importance of such distinctions, but without a definition, they just don't recognize them. Thousands of companies make the same type of mistake, so the error artificially deflates the job numbers of other industries, artificially inflates the ranks of IT, and logically causes executives to make truly costly IT decisions on bad information.

Measuring

Any MBA can tell me what the unit of production is for a CFO. They can tell me the difference between FA, AR, etc. with pretty certain terminology. Not because they are accountants, nor because accounting is easy, but because there are definitions to guide them.

Can anyone tell me what the unit of production for a CIO is?

In the absence of fact, we find the simplest analog. IT looks like a customer service organization, so that is how it is treated. Call with a problem, get a solution. We measure satisfaction, number of incidents, time of completion, etc., and over time this is defines IT. When an executive comes under fire, it's not because the IT group has failed to make a tweak that would save the organization a million bucks in wasted time; it's because someone complains that "the Internet is down" -- which translates into "The cable is unplugged."

It gets worse: The more efficient, effective and pure of purpose IT is, the more invisible it becomes. The more invisible it is, the more people question why it exists. If the executives are uncertain about what IT is supposed to do, then anyone with an opinion, something to sell or an ax to grind is taken seriously. To quiet the critics, IT is compelled to divert its resources to non-IT work and ill-conceived projects. Over time, those are the things by which IT is measured, and all of the proactive, strategic endeavors that could create capabilities or save massive amounts of time, money and work are all but forgotten.

From a business sense, is it more sad that IT pros often understand this, or that executives often don't?

Alignment

Alignment is a really dumb concept that works like this: Your organization has goals, and IT has goals. Alignment is the act of making those goals align. CIOs consistently report this as a No. 1 priority, year after year. That's a lot of aligning.

IT pros look at the explosion of technology options with giddy optimism, but they don't always recognize the cost of innovation. Executives, on the other hand, perceive steady innovation as an expensive, confusing diversion from their business and don't always recognize the cost of standing still. They've got tight budgets that don't flex with the ebb and flow of IT, and innovation doesn't lend itself to simple calculation. Executives have an anxiety about IT that is instinctively soothed by favoring more agreeable IT management, not realizing there is a price paid in technical competence that makes it even more difficult to bring IT ingenuity to real business problems.

Secretly, IT shares an adversarial relationship with the organization, forced to do the visible things it shouldn't and having to "trick" the organization into doing the strategic things it must. Without a definition, IT is always out of alignment, because it will never be rewarded for doing the things that only IT can do. That causes friction in ways that are universally counterproductive, making a dumb activity like "alignment" a No. 1 priority.

Faith, assumption, truthiness

Without a definition for IT, business executives are targets for all manner of coercive argument. They are made to feel as if the rest of the world has conquered the IT beast, and if they don't get on board with the latest trend, they will look stupid.

Should IT reorganize? Centralize? Decentralize? Outsource? Insource? Is it too big? Too small? Do we need ITIL? Should we provide service X? Why are we doing Y?

These are business questions whose answers often break down along what can seem like religious lines, in that everyone has an opinion and selects only the data that appears to validate it. The bigger the organization, the more militant the debates become, and the more false simplification takes over.

For example, ITIL is a self-described set of "best practices for IT Service Management." Many companies have spent many millions implementing ITIL-based processes, despite the lack of any science confirming its efficacy. The logic of ITIL is hard to argue with. But while each new faithful implementation shows short-term promise, I have yet to see a mature ITIL-based organization that isn't oversized, misshapen and grossly inefficient.

It's not that ITIL doesn't work -- in fact, it works exactly as one should expect. ITIL groups are acutely aware of their costs and processes, which is a primary goal of following the ITIL program. On paper, it's very convincing. But ITIL organizations develop a resistance to pragmatic, incremental innovations that others quickly, if sometimes recklessly, adopt. This not only frustrates existing innovators; it makes hiring innovators a contrary act. Over time, that leads to an overall shift in staffing, with deficiencies in key roles that further deteriorate the group's ability to keep up, much less lead. While others race by on an uncertain diet of cheaper, faster, better, stumbling every so often, ITIL groups are typically forced by the weight of their own bureaucracies to stagnate, then belch changes in massive, expensive eruptions.

Who would willingly do that to their organization? Well, I would, for one. That is, if no one could tell me what IT was supposed to do, if I viewed IT like a dry cleaning service, and if the world was telling me I could just pay a set fee and have no more worries, that would be hard to resist.

These things don't happen without strife, but it's tough to compete with faith. In 20 years, I have yet to see the results of an IT review contradict the opinion that spurred it. Whether it was the review that outsourced IT or the review that re-insourced it, the review always makes perfect sense. In the absence of a definition, anything makes sense.

Mediocrity

This is the collision of two different realities. Executives see savings in budget line items and value in a bill of services. IT sees savings in the things no one has to do anymore and value in the things no one could do before.

Reconciling the two is a big challenge. If I were in the CEO's shoes, I would be begging for someone to just tell me everything's OK in IT-land. I would be seeking out a smooth talker who could take the heat. That this is something that many CEOs want was made all too clear to me when I saw a survey of CIOs, CTOs and directors. Asked to check all the skills pivotal to their success, 70% checked "ability to communicate effectively" and 58% marked "strategic planning," while only 22% ticked "thorough knowledge of technology options." You have to wonder, what could a CIO possibly be communicating or planning without a thorough knowledge of technology options? Those numbers should horrify CEOs, who make big-money decisions based on the CIO's authority in only one area -- technology.

Enlightenment

It comes down to this: Even if you don't know how to turn on a computer, having a useful definition will help you count IT. It will help you measure IT. It will help you avoid the prophets who say they can solve your IT woes with numeric simplicity. It can even change the qualities you look for when hiring, and how you cope with ever-present uncertainty.

Having a definition brings a little discipline to the thoughts of all who use it, so that even the most opposite-minded people can approach a problem together, with competence. Competence produces intelligent direction, and as any fifth-grader can tell you, intelligent direction prevents the evil glitches from corrupting the system with dirty power.

Jeff Ello is currently "engaged in the art of managing organizational processes by establishing and maintaining computing frameworks" for the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University. He can be contacted at jello@techoped.com.

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