The constraining implications of our name - information technology - are massive.
Something as superficial as the label we use to define our professional activity actually hides a substantial risk for our future: if we gradually lose the role of both envisioning the potential and defining the application of digital innovation to businesses, we will only have ourselves to blame.
At a time when organisational domains and functions need reinvention in light of pervasive computing and the digital economy, the information technology (IT) function is called on to be an intrinsic part of the DNA of digital business strategies. But the path to that reality faces a variety of obstacles.
Thinking of IT as a utility, like water or electricity, is limiting, if not dangerously misleading.
IT as a discipline has the enormous potential to become the transformational force that guides organisations through unknown digital landscapes.
However, perceptions and misunderstandings about the IT capability and scope are working against rapid organisational responses.
These restrictive perceptions have a diversity of root causes. Some are external to the IT function, but others are self-inflicted damages. Sometimes we create the problem through the way that we position ourselves.
One of the most basic factors in the perceptions game is the name that we keep to identify our discipline.
Information Technology-the name that for a very long time has defined who we are and what we do, is now increasingly becoming a heavy burden.
The first factor to consider is how a name affects perceptions and decisions.
“The impact of names comes from how people expect to see you,” says Professor James Bruning from Ohio University. “And while prejudging someone based on their name might seem unfair, we sometimes do it when making decisions”.
The right name doesn’t guarantee success and performance, but can make our life a bit easier.
Another factor that compounds this effect is a general misunderstanding of some terms.
When ‘technology’ is mentioned, the receiver of the message will probably think of something related to the operation and application of physical devices to a specific task. If it is technology, you can touch it, right? It is not uncommon to find the uninformed associating the IT function with the information ‘pipes’, generally represented as IT infrastructure.
The reality is that technology has a richer meaning, being the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.
Obsolescence of definitions has also played an important role in this complex puzzle. Decades ago it was fine to accept the formal definition of information technology as: “the study or use of systems – especially computers and telecommunications – for storing, retrieving and sending information".
Today it is very apparent that the IT function in most organisations has a variety of responsibilities that substantially exceed that definition. IT is the discipline that has most dramatically changed from its initial conception, however we have remained static in relation to our name and the message we send.
Any IT organisation that wants to survive in a business environment today needs to go beyond skills in traditional disciplines such as algorithms, data structures, computational architecture, cybersecurity, information management, distributed systems, databases, operating systems and networks, among others.
To be successful, today’s IT organisation requires a high level of rigour in disciplines that build bridges with business functions and deliver superior strategic outcomes. An expanded team including business analysts, solutions architects, project specialists, process designers, customer specialists and change managers is required to make any IT solution relevant. Gartner puts it well: technology and change management without process redesign equates to automated chaos and confusion. Technology and process redesign without change management equals alienation, turnover and underutilised systems. Change management and process redesign without technology results in frustration, inefficiency and a high cost of operation. Those three major domains need to be approached together.
A strong systemic approach to complex wholes has been a constant in the history of IT, understanding a ‘system’ as a set of components working together in a complete mechanism or an interconnecting network. In particular, disciplines such as enterprise architecture (within the broad meaning of enterprise) and Agile methodologies have been embraced primarily by the IT function, which is nowadays the evangelist in organisations that generally resist understanding that these are the core enablers of smarter enterprises.
Even when ‘Information Systems’ (IS) might capture more comprehensively the complexity of our world, in recent years a new twist has made things more complicated and now this name also falls short in defining us effectively. IS or IT is not only about information anymore (with evident consequences for the CIO name). Now it is also about the “third platform” as IDC calls it – cloud, mobile, social and big data.
Our domain includes cognitive computing, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things as well. It extends to intimate digital relationships and to productive collaboration. It is about the augmented environment responding uniquely to us and protecting us. It is about hyper responsive event oriented architectures. It is about prompting emotions and winning the minds and hearts of your audiences through delightful digital experiences.
As a consequence, we are seeing IT departments incorporating a wide range of new skills: digital strategists, cloud architects, integration engineers, cognitive systems specialists, user experience specialist, digital graphic designers, digital producers, data scientists and digital communicators, among many others.
Given the quick evolution of the IT function we are best positioned to seize the future, with a profound, end-to-end understanding of digital technologies and their business applications.
Our main challenge is to architect digital blueprints, build big data backbones, establish agile service architectures and orchestrate powerful, complex digital ecosystems, with the absolute primary goal of delivering premium experiences and creating competitive advantage.
The new IT function is being called upon to be the innovation engine of the business – strategic, agile, hyperaware, predictive and bold. The new IT function is the one enabling the astonishing digital global transformation.
Now, is “the IT guy” what we want to be known as? Is not this poor description almost an affront given our long journey and our vast job? Do we want to risk our future at this time of seismic transformation, while important redefinition of domains and functions occur, by feeding the wrong perceptions?
If we don’t re-brand IT, outsiders might become the most important players in defining the role of digital disruptions in many businesses, making the incumbent less relevant.
It is certainly time to change our name. What do you propose?