The Way Business Is Moving published by
Issue Date: November 2005

What does IT do?

1 November 2005

As Peter Drucker says: '"They (IT people) will not disappear. But they may be about to become 'supporting cast' rather than the 'superstars' they have been over the last 40 years."
I was chatting with an IT management friend of mine recently and he fundamentally disagreed with me about the basic premise of my latest book: 'What business really wants from IT'. Now all authors get used to having detractors, and I would not be particularly worried if this was not the fourth such discussion I have had in as many weeks.
So, have I got it wrong? My friend says: "IT is only an efficiency tool - it cannot add ongoing strategic advantage because everyone has access to the same technology. Any advantages will be short-lived. So IT must focus on efficiency, using Moore's law to bring down IT costs at every possibility."
But I came from another angle. In my book I explore what many senior business people and CEOs have told me: They believe that this is a narrow view of IT's role in their organisation, because they want much more than this. They want IT to run their infrastructures and get the efficiencies yes, but that amounts to only 20% of what they want. They also want IT to be involved in business operations and improvements as well as to be involved in a meaningful way at a business strategy level.
The sad reality is that IT management in general is spending about 75% of their time at an IT efficiency and operations level. About 23% of their time is spent responding to business requirements and a mere 2% of their time involves giving appropriate leadership. (These are of course generalisations, and there are many exceptions which prove the rule).
Another of my detractors disagrees with my definition of IT leadership: "IT should be deeply involved in creating new products or new markets". When I explained that this actually was not my definition of leadership but that of a CEO, then my friend said: "The man is an idiot". (I declined to point out the difference in status of the 'idiot' who was running a multinational conglomerate and my friend the IT Auditor.)
What is IT's role?
Let us start by a quote from Heraclitus (540 BC-480 BC): "You can not step into the same river twice". This of course means that yesterday's answers cannot solve today's problems - the world has moved on. The problem is that IT's river and business's river are different rivers entirely. IT sees change as occurring predominantly in a technological sphere - with business conditions changing at a less rapid or even negligible pace, while business sees IT change as being an incessant sort of thing, and business is in a constant state of flux. So we have IT and business viewing change from different perspectives.
And IT does not seem to feel the need to communicate. Most medium or large business organisations have an internal communications department. But most if not all of the large IT functions I have had dealings with relegate communication to an incidental activity that follows once they have cracked the technological issues. I see effective communication as the essential element of IT value delivery. Remembering that communication should be evaluated on how the message is received, IT should have some people delegated solely to translating technological concepts and jargon into business terms.
When it comes to skills, business are looking for specialist generalists in IT - people who can tell them what the limits and advantages of technologies are, so that they can achieve their business goals. IT people, in general, focus on the technology - I still see adverts for senior jobs that specify a deep technical knowledge in a specific technology. This is fine for the IT support people, but not for senior IT managers. Their knowledge must be predominantly business knowledge, with the ability to translate technological details into business benefits.
Probably one of the key differences between IT and business people is the focus on outputs versus outcomes. IT people are concerned with delivering services and systems while business people look to the outcomes that result from having stable infrastructures and new systems. It is the difference between efficiency and effectiveness: Business asks if a system does what is needed by the business, and IT people look to how well the systems do what they do.
Terry White
Terry White
Terry White is the author of 'Reinventing the IT department', and 'What business really wants from IT'. Both books are available from

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