Opinion by Thornton May

IT must map its way to visibility

An enterprise in today’s world can’t know where it’s going without a technology map. IT needs to do that mapping and stop being invisible.

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Credit: Gerard van Schagen, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We in IT need to lead. Within the enterprise, we need to be perceived as leaders. We need to articulate the value we bring to the table.  

This is necessary because we in IT can be hard to see, to the point of being invisible. It has long been thus, and that attribute of invisibility has even been valued as a feature, not a bug. In the classic Otisline Harvard Business School case study, way back in 1986, it was stated that “the purpose of IT (like an elevator) is to go unnoticed.” This assessment was proffered even though the innovative and differentiated application of technology was acknowledged as the source of competitive differentiation.

Since then, the existential attacks have continued. Who can forget the frenzy Nicholas Carr precipitated when he proclaimed that IT doesn’t matter? And quite recently, Bill Janeway, a venture capitalist, economist and author of Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy: Markets, Speculation and the State, stated that “from the point of view of the user, IT is probably in the process of disappearing.” Maybe we should take comfort that his word “disappearing” suggests that we were at least somewhat visible until now. 

Janeway has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Cambridge. He does not make his living saying highly provocative things that generate speaking fees. When someone who thinks as deeply as he does questions why IT exists, the IT community needs to take action. 

One action that I advocate for IT leaders is to create the technology maps that their enterprises will need to negotiate today’s marketplace. Modern executives should never be surprised by technology. They might be disappointed by technology. Frequently they should be ashamed at their ham-handed, small-minded attitudes toward the adoption and deployment of technology. Some should be flogged publicly for their bordering-on-malfeasance inability to make money with the technology cornucopia that defines modern existence. But they should never be surprised by technology. Technology futures are knowable. Technology futures and possible technology opportunities need to be mapped. 

Executives who are surprised by technology will lose their way, if not the entire company. Martha Stewart was recently taken to task on National Public Radio for essentially losing her way in a digital world. The empirical evidence is unambiguous. As NPR put it: “At its height, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia was worth $2 billion. Her company is being sold to Sequential Brands Group for $353 million.” I believe that such a steep decline in market value for the woman who essentially invented lifestyle branding is at root the result of having a bad technology road map (or perhaps no technology road map at all). 

Making a technology map involves articulating in a compelling manner what technology can do for the enterprise, what the enterprise can do with technology, and how IT can deliver measurable impact. The strategic questions become, Where is your technology map, who and via what process was it constructed, and how good is it? 

In A History of the World in Twelve Maps, Jerry Brotton reminds us that “the urge to map is a basic, engaging human instinct.” We map to make sense of the world and define our place in it. But maps were once rare. “In the ancient world even short distance travel was a rare and difficult activity generally undertaken with great reluctance and fear,” writes Brotton. Maps were not terribly important because most people really weren’t going anywhere. I needn’t say that you don’t want that said about your enterprise. 

Nonetheless, efficacious technology map making is a surprisingly rare competence in modern organizations. Only 40% of the Global 2000 organizations I surveyed were able to produce compelling one-to-two-page visual representations of where they were going, what they were doing and the benefits they anticipated harvesting via technology investments.

It’s important to realize that when you undertake mapping your enterprise’s technology world, a single map won’t do. Besides mapping where your company is going, you have to map your competitors. A technology map that might have helped Stewart preserve and create value would also show what competitors like Etsy, Gilt Group and Gwyneth Paltrow’s website Goop were doing with technology. 

So map, and be seen. Because IT and the technology it wields cannot remain invisible in a world where a mouse click and a credit card transaction can initiate high-performance computing and advanced analytics performed on exabyte-scale data sets.

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