Viewpoints

A conversation with IT leaders

The Path We Take Together

The Path We Take Together

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What if you built a campus and let the students decide where the sidewalks should go? Years ago I recall reading something about Pepperdine University. According to the story, when the campus was first built in Malibu, California, there were no sidewalks. What the university decided to do instead was to see which paths students forged to get to class. Then, after a time, that’s where they laid the sidewalks. I don’t know if the story is true but it’s a brilliant analogy for how Enterprise IT should work.

 

Everything is Reactive

I’ve been in the tech industry for over thirty years and, in my opinion, IT as a whole is reactive. Entire processes are created—and people are trained—around reacting to something, whether it’s a security threat or a broken PC. Something like consumerization happens and IT must suddenly scramble to manage the ensuing chaos. Meanwhile governance that has been carefully built up over years hasn’t provided users with the freedom they need to do their jobs in a better, more productive way. To the contrary, it makes them feel trapped.

 

IT as Mordac

Remember Mordac the Preventer of Information Services from ‘Dilbert’? This is how many users see IT today. And if there wasn’t some truth in Scott Adams’ depiction, would there be a need for so many shadow IT groups?

 

From IT’s perspective, it’s a bit unfair. Especially when Mordac proclaims, “In a perfect world, no one would be able to use anything.” IT has been charged with creating some kind of order—usually managing the unbelievably challenging goat rodeo of a heterogeneous environment. There is compliance that must be followed, an endless list of user requests and the need to install new software to allow the business to grow. And what about all that legacy stuff? Then there’s the users themselves. Take a look at Stupid User Tricks 5: IT's Weakest Link. Suddenly you’re taking IT’s side.

 

It’s Not about Control

In the old days, IT made the rules and everyone played. And that worked well for many years. Over time, enhancements would be made to technology and processes—usually delighting users when done well. Of course, back then we were all using dumb terminals, speaker phones and fax machines—things we didn’t typically have at home.

 

But we’re in a different world now. Younger workers—millennials—are coming into the workforce fully expecting to be able to leverage social media and every conceivable kind of new tablet and smartphone. And, by the way, they want IT to support them.

 

This implies that IT cannot exercise the same control it once did. If it does, it will be relegated to a utility that can be outsourced. Take a look at a recent post by Galen Gruman entitled “The Straight Talk on IT’s New Directions.” What would be better, I think, is for IT to be a partner to the business.

 

Let the Children Play

Do you ever sit and just watch children play? You can learn a lot. You see how they communicate with one another, how they use toys and—most importantly—how they get things done. It’s a fairly cooperative world. Introduce a new toy into the group and watch what happens. The first thing you’ll notice is that they learn very quickly. Next you’ll probably find that they will incorporate the toy into their game in ways you never imagined. A bucket and a jump rope? Elevator.

 

Einstein said that “play is the highest form of research.” Imagine if you applied this to the workplace. You gave people what they were used to in their personal lives and you watched them become productive.

 

Is this a recipe for chaos? Well, it depends. What if you spun up an innovation lab and invited small groups of users to try out new devices and services? And what if you tasked someone in IT who was already active in social media to communicate internally with your employees around exchanging ideas, and trying out new hardware and new services? Now what if you took all these learnings and went back to the business with concrete proposals on how to be more productive with something that IT can support?

 

But What about Security?

When you talk about introducing new untested technology into a well-oiled machine, you are usually met with raised eyebrows and pointed questions about security. And rightly so. No one wants their company’s network to be attacked or have confidential information leaked into the wild. On that second score, email pretty much fails the test. There is absolutely nothing preventing someone from sending confidential information outside the company. So should we get rid of email?

 

Social media is another area of concern. Over the last year, I have spoken with a number of CIOs whose organizations forbid the use of Facebook, Twitter—and even LinkedIn—in the enterprise. My guess is, they block access on the corporate network. But guess what: users can easily get to these sites via their smartphones. The key is training. Teach people how to use these services responsibly. They might even be more productive. Dell has demonstrated this with @DellCares (see Case study: Dell's evolution on Twitter).

 

IT as an Innovation Leader

If you were to do these things, you would change the perception of IT as a preventer to a leader who is a true partner to the business. I think a good example of someone who gets this is Stephen Gillett, CIO at Starbucks. These guys rock when it comes to innovation. They have an amazing staff that is not only hungry to bring new technology and services into the company but also shares their stories with the public via Facebook and Twitter. Here is Gillett’s refreshing view of IT: I want Starbucks’ information technology organization in the Seattle community to be what I call a “destination employer.” (See Starbucks’ CIO Stephen Gillett Seeks “Pillars of Strength” During Economic Storm.)

 

Going back to my original analogy, Mordac would have laid the sidewalks first and forced people to use them—no matter how inconvenient. An innovator would ask: I wonder which path my users would like to take? Hey, I’ll find a way to support that.

 

So who would you rather be, Mordac or Innovator? In my opinion, it’s the path we take together that matters. Let me know if you agree.

 

The opinions and views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily state or reflect those of Microsoft.

  • I think you need a little of both. I've written about it and in fact, base the IT strategy at O'Reilly Media on this: striking the right balance between predictability and innovation. Emphasis on either side and you have a problem. Each business needs to find the right mix. I don't see a situation where you can choose.

    Great blog Steve!

  • Thanks, Jonathan—great point. I agree that a balance is best. I think it’s been the case too often, though, that IT would err on the side of risk avoidance at the expense of innovation. It will be interesting to see what the enterprise looks like in 5 years when social media and device proliferation become the norm. I hope it skews more toward innovation.

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