Thornton May: Why would IT want to be a 'device Santa Claus'?

As a futurist, I pay attention to what people pay attention to. As an anthropologist, I listen to the stories people are telling and are being told. As a Computerworld opinion columnist, I am fascinated by the inverse: What aren'twe paying attention to, and what stories are not being told? Right now, the essentially unremarked blind spot of the IT industry is that the way we buy technology has changed -- right down to the question of who does the buying.

Our industry is obsessed with the next big thing. It is what subscription research firms get paid big money for. It is what vendor slide decks are stuffed full of. "What are we buying now?" and "What should we be buying next?" form the master narrative of our ecosystem. But when the AIIM Executive Leadership Council recently convened in London, it examined the hypothesis that the questions of who buys and how they buy may be as important as the question of what we buy in shaping the future of IT. Our conclusion: Evolving IT buying behaviors deserve much more rigorous management attention.

Meanwhile, at the IT Leadership Academy, we asked a group of IT executives to think about the history and the future of IT purchase behaviors.

Tribal elders (IT executives who remember the age of punch cards and DEC VAXes) observed that each new technology (mainframes, minicomputers, PCs) progressed through a series of stages: initiation, contagion, formalization/control and maturity. Some of them contend that these patterns will continue to repeat. They look at the loss of control many organizations are experiencing with today's disruptive technologies -- mnemonically rendered as the SMAC stack (social, mobile, analytics/big data and cloud) -- and hypothesize that this is merely the contagion pattern repeating itself. This subset of executives believes that after a time, a semblance of centralized control over IT purchases will re-exert itself. We termed this group "The Pendulum Will Swing Backers."

Another group, the "Power to the People" contingent, sees evidence of evolutionary trends that will keep us from repeating that history. They point out that we've seen the focal point of buying shift from the IT department to the line of business, and they are not freaked out that today buying power seems to be moving to the individual.

Why, they wonder, does IT want to be in the technology provisioning business? Do we want to be "the store" that all departments come to for their digital kits? As Barbra Cooper, the recently retired CIO at Toyota Motor Sales USA, remarked, being a "device Santa Claus" is not truly strategic. IT can keep on fighting to be included in every purchase decision in the company, she said, but it will turn out to be a fight without end. The better long-term strategy (that is, looking out five years) is to educate business people about how to buy technology. As Cooper reasoned, "The people coming into the company are tech-savvy. They have a corporate purchase card. It is nothing for some guy in marketing to get himself a piece of the cloud. As a CIO, you don't have a clue until it is too late."

The danger is that most business people are not educated enough to buy non-toxically. That's why Cooper stresses education, with a set of rules: "Here is the sandbox. Here are the rules you have to play by. And when you go outside those rules, here are the consequences."

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Thornton A. May is author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics and executive director of the IT Leadership Academy at Florida State College in Jacksonville. You can contact him at or follow him on Twitter (@deanitla).

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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