We must go beyond normal IT

Bog-standard, commoditised IT can be beginning of the end for an organisation - if leaders in the IT department, at every level, don't fight for innovation.


When Nicholas Carr put forward his "IT doesn't matter" argument in the Harvard Business Review (and in his subsequent book and blog he set off a firestorm of controversy in the IT community. But now, four years later, Carr's point has been made by organisation after organisation. Whenever a business problem is put forward, IT comes back with a package.

This response has become so dependable that those on the business side often investigate packages before bringing problems to us. Instead of rising to the challenges, we work within the limited parameters for change that we are given. The noose of being "dead-dog ordinary" tightens just a little more. There's little difference between the IT organisation offering another "commodity" job and some collection of outside service providers doing it.

This isn't a screed against packages, be they software, software services or business process outsourcing. Taking anything other than the standard approach for things like accounts payable and payroll hasn't demonstrated enough value to be worthwhile. For stock business processes, packages are the natural answer, and for much of an organisation's daily transactional workload, "stock standard" ought to be the norm.

But what is IT doing to help the company compete - to maintain and expand its market niche and leverage its brand identity to create new business lines? Is it moving beyond the mix of standard processes to contribute to product innovation, facilitate exemplary customer experiences and implement integration with suppliers and sourcing partners? Does it ever require that a standard process be made unique?

Failing to take such steps will leave a company vulnerable to attack from competitors that go beyond the stock standard approaches. Then a core strategy of being operationally excellent at the basics degenerates as the company suffers through repeated rounds of de-optimisation for short-term cash extraction. We call these "cutbacks" and "cost-constraint programs." After a while, the CEO wonders - again - why the business isn't growing.

The last pieces of the technology puzzle cannot be bought; they must be built. Package vendors can afford to develop packages only when the definition of the problem is agreed upon to the extent that there will be a market large enough to pay for the creation, support and extension of the product. Business process outsourcers depend on standardised processes so that the same team, using the same technologies, can service multiple clients. So it goes.

Yes, the work of IT remains automating the processes that keep the organisation running, but there's a need for real creative work -- whether it's designing new business models, new products and services, or new ways of working - that can create new paths for growth. We need an IT that goes beyond the stock and the standard to true innovation, and that calls for an IT organisation able to create a demand for this kind of change.

If you accept this challenge, you can expect to work in an environment that's far removed from the predictable daily workloads of package implementation, surrounded by consultants and integrators who have done it all before. The creative process is likely to be iterative and rapid, and if the early results are favourable, you can expect to go through a quick expansion. Will your IT organisation lead, or will your business struggle? Whatever your role in IT, you can be a breath of fresh air and lead the way.

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