What 'suits' need to know about IT

After 25 years in this industry, after teaching at four business schools, researching for three think tanks and working at five consultancies, I had an insight last week that may seem forehead-slappingly obvious when you read it: Ignorance of IT destroys value.

If the full value is to be extracted from every IT dollar spent, high-level executives have to know "things" about technology. As a knowledge-deficit kind of guy -- that is, as someone who studies the effects of ignorance on organizational performance -- I'm interested in figuring out what things need to be known about technology and who needs to know them.

When the World Changes, Shouldn't You Change With It? First, line-of-business executives are going to have to evolve. The world is changing, and if they want to survive, they will have to come down from the trees and learn to walk erect on the savannah of digitally enabled enterprises that have been transformed by globalization, Web 2.0 technologies and functionality delivered via the Internet. Not only do they need to know something about IT, but they also have to be perceived as knowledgeable.

And that knowledge has to be personal; it won't be enough to have sufficient tech knowledge to hire smart IT professionals. How fast is the environment changing? Very, very fast. President Clinton was famously technologically challenged, and he could get a laugh in 2000 telling an audience in Hyderabad, "When I was a young man, chips were something you ate, windows were something you washed, disks were part of your spinal column that when you got older often slipped out of place, and semiconductors were frustrated musicians who wished they were leading orchestras." In 2008, the laughter had a different tone when John McCain confessed that he had "never felt the particular need to e-mail." And even though some may have credited McCain with hiring technologists who are more savvy about the Web, business intelligence and search-engine optimization than those working for his opponent, he still lost some credibility by exhibiting his personal tech shortcomings.

So, you aren't going to get away with just hiring smart IT folks -- you have to be IT smart as well. The days of IT people serving as data valets for high-level "suits" are over.

You Have to Master the Basics... Business executives need to understand what it takes and what it costs to provide base-level computational functionality. That functionality needs to be secure, scalable and unquestionably reliable. I believe we're entering a 15-year window of unprecedented opportunity to create competitive advantage with technology. The companies that will gain from this will be the ones whose IT teams won't have to crawl out from under the ambition-crushing, innovation-sucking, soul-destroying minutiae of merely keeping the digital lights on.

...And Practice Your Technology Stagecraft. Technology makes entrances and exits, and business executives have to be able to stage-manage them. They have to master the four primary areas of technology application -- data collection, data movement, data analysis and knowledge dissemination -- and determine where these clusters are today, where they are heading and how emerging developments can be exploited. In short, they need to ensure that a rich array of high-quality technology alternatives is examined and that they invest in the right ones at the right time.

Executives have to wake up to the fact that technology has become extremely important to people, and that its importance will only grow. To see evidence of this, they need only read a recent news report about a woman in Nova Scotia who was so frustrated by her Internet service provider's failure to restore her Internet connection that she allegedly threatened to hold a technician hostage until she was back online. If you find that reaction incomprehensible, you are out of touch and should be out of tech.

This version of this opinion column appeared in Computerworld 's print edition.


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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