Beyond “Make it So” – Finding the Value in IT

As a number of you reading this may know, I have, over the last few weeks, had to rebuild my website. In the process of doing so, I reached out to a colleague in Australia to see if he had any copies of the material that I lost from my old site. The title of this post is from an article that he sent me. It is from a 2005 article in Australian Chief Executive: the official journal of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA). The article is adapted from a speech that I gave to CEDA in Melbourne in September 2005. The first part of the heading relates to the Captain Picard Star Trek reference in the article, which you’ll understand when you read it.

In reading it again, I realized, sadly, that the speech is still as relevant today as it was then – somewhat more than 15 years ago. I’m including some background, and a number of points from the article here – there’s a link to the full article later in his post.

As I was walking from my hotel to the venue where I was speaking, I had to walk through the casino which was attached to the hotel. This got me thinking, and resulted in my opening remarks including the statement that “ When we published ‘The Information Paradox’, we actually wanted to call it ‘The IT Casino’ because the odds of getting a return on IT investments have historically been worse than the odds at a casino[1].” Unfortunately, the publisher thought otherwise saying that it trivialized the topic. I still feel, as many other people have told me over the years, that it would have been a much better and easier to grasp title.

In my speech, I described what I called the “IT-labelling problem”. The minute we put IT in front of something it’s an IT problem. IT value? That’s an IT problem. IT strategy? IT governance? Those are IT problems. I wasn’t saying that we didn’t have problems in IT; there were, and still are such problems, and we needed and still need to fix them. But getting value from IT is not about the IT itself – it’s about how we use IT such that it contributes to value – organizational, societal and individual value. It’s about the complementary changes we have to make if we are to realize that value. Changes to our business, our organization, our processes, the work that people do, and how they do it. Putting that in the context of digital transformation in today’s evolving digital world, it’s not about the digital technology, it’s about organizational, societal and individual change that digital technology both enables and requires if we are to get anywhere near realizing the potential value of the transformation. Even more so, it’s about the cultural and mindset change that will be required to make this happen.

I also referred to  a study I had done with the Society for Information Management (SIM), involving a large number of well-known US companies. The primary issue that came out of that study was the lack of business engagement in so-called “IT projects”. It raised the question of what needed to be to get the business to understand that these IT projects were in fact IT-enabled business change programs. That 85% of the work that had to be done involved changes to the business, with only 15% of the work being the technology component.

My closing words in the speech, as adapted in the article, are again, as relevant today as they were then.

Had I written down 20 or 30 years ago what I thought the world would look like in 2005 –  how organizations would operate, what jobs would look like, how healthcare would be delivered, how education would be delivered, how policing would be done – I’d look at it now and think that I was smoking something. We have not got anywhere near to tapping the potential that IT can enable.

Leaders have to do what is best for their enterprises and organizations. And I’m not naive enough to think that isn’t damn hard. But I’m idealistic enough to think it’s worth doing. We will be shirking our responsibilities if we don’t continue to push for a better way of doing this.” 

You can read the full article here.

15 years ago, I was excited about this opportunity to speak as it was an opportunity to get my message across to CEOs – the people who need to understand, take ownership of, and be held accountable for realizing value from their investments in IT-enabled change. After the event, I discovered that almost all the CEOs had sent their CIOs instead of attending themselves. Obviously, they thought that this was an “IT thing”- not relevant to them. This is, all too often, still the case today. Even though we now talk about digitally-enabled organizational transformation, it is still seen as an “IT thing”.

As I wrote in a 2014 article, labelling and managing investments in IT-enabled business change as IT projects, and abdicating accountability to the CIO (or worse, consultants) continues to be a root cause of the failure of so many to generate the expected payoff. Business value does not come from technology alone – in fact, technology in and of itself is simply a cost. Business value comes from the business change that technology increasingly shapes and enables. Change of which technology is only one part – and increasingly often, as mentioned above, only a small part. Technology only contributes to business value when complementary changes are made to the business – including sometimes complex changes to the organizational culture, the business model, and the operating model, as well as to relationships with customers and suppliers, business processes and work practices, staff skills and competencies, reward systems, organizational structures, physical facilities etc.

When it comes to IT, the rest of the business, from the board and executive leadership down, has expected the IT function to deliver what they asked for, assuming little or no responsibility themselves, until it came time to assign blame when the technology didn’t do what they had hoped for. The business change that technology both shapes and enables must be owned by business leaders, and they must accept responsibility, and be held accountable for creating and sustaining business value from that change. This cannot be abdicated to the IT function, or to consultants.

The primary issue here, as I mentioned earlier, is the lack of business leader engagement. (The second is the lack of engagement with all the stakeholders who are impacted by the change – but that won’t get resolved without resolving the primary issue.) However, engagement is a two-way street. Value/benefits management professionals/practitioners must develop the skills and confidence to reach out to business leaders to help them understand the key role that they have to play. Only when this happens will we start to break down the barriers to engagement, and fully realize the value of our investments in digitally-enabled change.

[1] I once again used this analogy in a more recent post, Beating the Odds in the IT Casino.

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