Friday, May 23, 2008

Why is corporate IT so bad? Because CEOs don't like IT.

Much of my life is spent in the world of the large publicly traded corporation.

It's a curious world. I never aimed to be here, but my life is much more like a ship in a storm than an eagle on the wind. I washed ashore and have lived among these peculiar natives for many years. I have learned some of their mysterious rituals and customs, and I seem to them more odd than alien.

There are many things I could say about large corporations, which I think of as a mix between the worlds of European feudalism, the command economies of the Soviet empire, and the combative tribal cultures of New Guinea. From yet another perspective the modern corporation is an amoeba oozing across an emergent plain of virtual life, a world in which humans do not exist and multi-cellular organisms are still in the future.

But I digress.

One the peculiarities of modern corporate life is how awful the essential IT infrastructure usually is (70% plus in Cringely's unscientific polling). Electricity, phones and heat aren't too bad, but corporate IT systems are a mess.

Broadly speaking, corporate IT infrastructure feel about 30-40% under-funded, in part due to an inevitable dependency on the Microsoft platform with its very high cost of ownership. Even if IT infrastructures were fully funded, however, there would remain a near universal lack of measurement of the impact of various solutions on employee productivity.

Why is this?

Cringely tries to answer this question. I think he's close to the right track, but he's distracted by focusing on management expertise and other peripheral issues. I think the answer lies on a related dimension. First, Cringely ...

I, Cringely . The Pulpit . IT Wars | PBS

Last week's column on Gartner Inc. and the thin underbelly of IT was a hit, it seems, with very few readers rising to the defense of Gartner or the IT power structure in general... the bigger question is why IT even has to work this way at all?

... Whether IT managers are promoted from within or brought from outside it is clear that they usually aren't hired for their technical prowess, but rather for their ability to get along with THEIR bosses, who are almost inevitably not technical...

... The typical power structure of corporate (which includes government) IT tends to discourage efficiency while encouraging factionalization. Except in the rare instance where the IT director rises from the ranks of super-users, there is a prideful disconnect between the IT culture and the user culture...

...In time this will end through the expedient of a generational change. Old IT and old users will go away to be replaced by new IT and new users, each coming from a new place...

It's kind of a chaotic column really (perhaps because it was written on an iPhone!), the above editing is showing just the bits I thought were interesting. From these excerpts you can see that Cringely is, in part, taking a sociological perspective. I think that's the right approach, one that consider the age of today's senior executives and the world they grew up in.

In essence, the senior executive leadership of most corporations are not dependent on IT in any significant way, and they tend to have a substantial (often justified) emotional distrust for computer technology in general. It is, to them, an alien and unpleasant world they're rather forget about. They don't use the IT systems that drive their employees to drink, and quickly they forget about them.

For this group corporate IT infrastructure is a mysterious expense, with unclear returns.

It is not surprising that the IT world, then, is the problem child in the attic. It will take a generational change to fix this, so we'll be living with the problem for another twenty years...

1 comment:

alanbooker said...

Great post, I was pulled in by the visual elements expressed in the language.

“It will take a generational change to fix this, so we'll be living with the problem for another twenty years...”

I wonder if both external and internal influences will create change, and more rapidly than you indicate.

Generational change will surely shift some of the modes of communication and attitudinal barriers that exist as stumbling blocks to both efficiency and productivity.

The greatest change though will, in my opinion, come from a changing culture that enables less dependency on traditional IT hardware needs. They are going to be supplanted by those self same software and services being available on-line. As the monster corporations such as Yahoo, Google, Amazon and Microsoft offer cloud computing, many traditional IT departments are going to be scrapped or at least greatly diminished in size.

The IT landscape is going to go the way of the Brazilian forest, hacked and chopped apart thereby making the IT specialist an endangered species’. This might take some time but it’s in the cards!

Cheers, Alan