What Is IT Transformation, Really?

Anyone involved with information technology suffers from buzzword fatigue, and the jargon keeps coming. “IT transformation” has become a popular piece of the techie vernacular, but what it means depends on whom you ask. Query 10 CIOs or IT executives about the basic definition of transformation, and you’re likely to get 10 different answers.

Does transforming your IT operation mean morphing from a utility/cost center to a value creator? Reshaping your architecture or application mix? Or moving from a centralized model to a decentralized one, or vice versa? IT leaders have said “yes” to all of the above, all while using the same term–transformation–to describe the change.

Dan Roberts, president of Ouellette & Associates, a Bedford, N.H., consulting firm that focuses on IT transformation, believes part of the problem is the inability of CIOs to communicate their vision. “Even when [CIOs] have a good transformation plan, communication is done so poorly that they don’t get people on board or get people driving it across all levels,” he says.

Roberts looks at IT transformation as something broader than a specific initiative or strategy. It’s a shift from being a reactive, order-taker culture to driving business growth and improvement. A key part of that, he says, is positioning your IT shop as the “internal consultant of choice,” versus available consulting or advisory services.

Now juxtapose that with what others had to say about a CIO Insight blog post on the discussion with Roberts. Ben Ranklin put it bluntly: “Let’s call transformation what it is: cost cutting. Enough with the window dressing.”

The term is so ambiguous, Willard Woodrow claimed, that attempts to define it narrowly could result in peril: “Trying to define such a broad topic in a universal, narrow-scope, all-inclusive manner is like jousting at a windmill: Failure is practically guaranteed, and success borders on meaninglessness.”

Another reader, going only by “Jon,” wrote: “Transformation is nothing more than a term invented by the big consultancy firms in order to generate more business. No one in IT really uses the term.”

What we have here is a failure to communicate. And IT pros, in general, aren’t known for their communication skills. Many of CIOs’ biggest obstacles–becoming more strategic, retaining the best work force and aligning with the business–can be attributed, in part, to poor communication.

The bottom line is that CIOs need to get a grip on the concept or risk being perceived as mush-mouthed jargonizers.

They also need to pinpoint their transformation efforts in the right places–namely, in meeting the demands of the business and its customers. “CIOs and IT leaders easily revert to their technical comfort zone,” Roberts says. “You have to think about it as looking from the outside in. People in IT work their tails off trying to hit the bull’s-eye on customer value, business value and being more strategic. They’re hitting the bull’s-eye every time, but it’s their bull’s-eye, not their clients’ bull’s-eye.”

Synchronizing goals should make sense to both IT executives and those aspiring to the perch, as well as to non-IT folks who work with and rely on technology. But if no one understands the true meaning of IT transformation–and what it portends for technology shops and the business at large–it will become just another buzzword that delivers few real results.

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