IT Needs to Aspire and Really Make a Difference

Victor Hugo, the great writer of 19th-century France, said, "You can resist an invading army; you cannot resist an idea whose time has come." The same can be said of technologies.

Currently, four transformational technologies define the IT agenda: big data, social networking, mobile and cloud computing. You can't resist these technologies, but the question is whether you will deploy them resignedly -- that which can't be resisted must be accommodated -- or exploit them aspirationally, in ways that really make a difference.

In the pattern of technology adoption called "mirroring," an organization identifies a new technology, "sandboxes" its properties via a series of controlled-risk internal experiments and finally applies that technology to existing work processes. The new technology is deployed to mirror the existing way of doing things.

When it comes to transformation and aspiration, this is about as low as you can get. If you don't see that, think of the classic case of mirroring: As Americans transitioned from a nation of radio listeners to one of television watchers, the initial rollout of the new technology featured radio performers reading scripts. The only thing that changed was that the technology had moved beyond the microphone to include a camera.

With the hindsight of several decades, we can all easily see how that approach underutilized the potential of television. But can we see as clearly how we are underexploiting the new technologies now available to us? Do we really need to take baby steps with these powerful and potentially game-changing tools? Shouldn't we change our mindset and aggressively explore what previously impossible things these new technologies allow us to do?

I believe we should. IT should aspire to more than KTLO (that's "keeping the lights on"). But too often we don't. A management framework in widespread use today divides IT investments and technologies into three buckets: running, growing and transforming the business. On average, 65% of IT spending goes to running the business, 25% to growing it and a mere 10% to transforming it. This has to change. Are you the leader who can make that happen -- who insists that transformational technologies be deployed aspirationally?

If you're wondering where to start, there's no question that big data in general and high-performance analytics in particular are a source of competitive advantage. The convergence of improved analytics, larger bandwidth, cheaper storage and increased computing power gives senior management the opportunity to materially compress the time it takes to know key things about markets, customers, competitors and events.

Retailers know this. Retailing has become a know/don't know blood sport. The most powerful tool for modern retail gladiators is analytics. In the past, a retailer might have looked at product data by class or subclass, aggregated at a company level, at monthly and sometimes weekly intervals. Today, retailers need data granularity that focuses on specific SKUs and stores, analyzed and acted upon every day, if not several times a day.

Let me close with another quote, this one from the Renaissance poet Giambattista Marino: "Let him who cannot amaze work in the stables." With regard to big data and high-performance analytics, he who does not aspire will not work at all.

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 © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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