CIOs and their IT organizations are on the defensive, their future in doubt. To remain relevant, IT must rightfully assert itself as a creative arm of the enterprise.
By Frank Wander
Information technology was, is and will remain an inherently creative endeavor. This creative aspect of IT must become every enterprise’s focus, as it is a source of innovation and competitive advantage. Being able to turn concepts into reality by leading a combined development team of business and technology people to greatness is how IT creates value. Unfortunately, as technology exploded over the last three decades, IT divisions came to be viewed as a runaway expense, with many CFOs shifting the focus of IT to cost reduction and containment, not growth.
In some cases this was absolutely warranted. Yet, the consequences of this shift to cost cutting are being felt across the industry, as creative talent has been too often reduced to nothing more than interchangeable parts. This has resulted in the offshoring and outsourcing of the talent infrastructure and, with its dispersal, the institutional knowledge and social cohesion so vital to innovation and project delivery have been lost. Project failure remains pervasive, further impairing the perception of IT organizations as a vital company asset. This trend must be reversed. CIOs must take the offensive, and help lead innovation across the enterprise. To do this, they will have to build the talent, workplace culture, institutional knowledge and transformation capabilities that are required to lead an organization forward.
The Path Forward: Business Infrastructure as a Service
Fortunately for us, the path ahead is clear. The maturation of infrastructure as a service is a key lever of transformation. Most corporations have a large, expensive infrastructure that must be professionally governed, so that cost and complexity are kept under control. This part of IT is necessary to run the business, and is therefore a competitive necessity, not a competitive advantage. Everything that is a competitive necessity will move to the cloud where business infrastructure as a service (think networks, computing, storage and corporate systems like HR) is becoming robust and resilient. IT must champion this transformational change by creating an explicit strategy with buy-in from the corporation's leadership.
By competitively bidding out management of the technology infrastructure, and replacing in-house corporate systems with cloud-based solutions (like Workday for HR), the burden of daily run-the-business activities shifts in large part to third-parties, thus freeing the leadership to focus on creating business value. (In many organizations, 80 percent of its money and time are spent on running the business.) Most importantly, the cost savings generated by this transformation can be redirected into investments in the talent infrastructure and strengthened governance as an explicit part of the strategy. By building the capabilities necessary to innovate and grow the business, IT can focus on the creative side of business.
IT Staff Members Are Co-Creators
IT is very strongly positioned to become the leader of innovation. IT organizations literally create value. In my book, Transforming IT Culture, I clearly demonstrate why IT is a creative arm of the company. Unfortunately, as I note in the book, the industrial perception of IT’s role has masked the inherent creativity of our profession. The IT person that industry sees as a manager, is, in fact, a conductor, just as a programmer is a composer, and an end user is a listener—and our design tools are really instruments for us to play.
Members of the IT staff are not just coworkers, they are co-creators!
Large teams of hyper-specialized professionals each contribute a piece of the ultimate solution. At its core, solutions development is a product of strong vision, deep collaboration and the ability to collectively move an idea from concept to reality. Every step forward requires creativity.
Technology teams are the craftspeople of this new era. That is crystal clear across the software industry, where company after company brings new solutions to life, embraces their staff as valued corporate assets, and fights to get the best talent—not the cheapest. Management leverages their craftspeople's creativity. In traditional corporations, however, the exact opposite is true. Here, creative talent remains underutilized. This orientation is a direct result of the industrial-age mindset that still pervades many corporations, where talent is condescendingly referred to as human resources—mere parts—the cheaper the better.