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There was a time when the world was divided into technology providers and technology consumers (or “end-user organisations”).
Today, the latter are increasingly selling IT to their clients. Online banking and e-government come to mind.
Without doubt IT is core to the technology providers, but the question arises “how core is IT to end-user organisations?”.
There is a niggling feeling among the user community that the technologists are propagating the myth that the world is becoming IT-centric, and that those that do not buy into that fact will have ample time to consider their misjudgment.
It would not be the first time that users have fallen prey to an elaborate tech-centric hoax. Y2K and the dotcom gold rush come to mind.
The counter-argument, of course, is that aircraft did not fall out of the sky one second into the year 2000, thanks to the IT industry having it covered. And dotcom-mania was the result of beautiful people seducing vulture capitalists into believing that profitability as a concept was overrated.
As an ex-techie who has endeavoured to view the world from both sides of the business-IT department sandbags, I have an economic and existential need to propagate the view that IT is increasingly core to business.
It would be contrarian and self-destructive to promote the idea that IT is becoming less important.
Having said that, the Harvard Business Review provided the rallying call for IT-sceptics with its piece entitled “IT doesn’t matter” in May 2003. Much like punk rock supposedly exposed the great rock and roll swindle, the article voiced the thoughts of many business people. Its resonance was amplified by the fact that it was written in the chill of the technology nuclear winter, when most businesses were still licking their wounds for getting caught up in the “great dotcom swindle”.
The market has moved on and business leaders have had to put their disdainful thoughts to the back of their minds because many of today’s crucial business agenda items are entwined with IT.
But are we really careering towards an IT-centric future? Let us take a look at the history of IT. In 1943, the forecast global requirement for computers totalled five. In 1984, there was about one computer per office. By 1995, each user had a PC. Today, most users have two (typically a desktop and PDA). It doesn’t take a Mensa trained logician to spot the trend.
At this point, it is appropriate to quote the caveat used by financial service companies, “past performance is no guide to the future”. Nevertheless, subject to nuclear Armageddon, IT looks set to become more entwined with business and our lives.
Outsourcing has forced business leaders to review their mission statements and core competencies. A certain “world’s local bank” sees brand management and information management as the core competencies of its business.
Smart leaders are focusing less on product competencies, because given the increased granularity of business cycles, in two years their product line may bear no resemblance to what is on offer today.
Good brand management will bolster profitability only if the organisation is sufficiently market-sensitive to adjust to the rapidly changing needs of increasingly empowered customers. Cue the IT department.
Market alertness is only one line of argument for the importance of IT in business success. Similar arguments can be made for cost management, security and governance.
IT has a role to play in practically all business processes. So it is not a leap of reasoning to suggest that the relationship between IT and business is similar to that between one’s nervous system and good health.
Over time, business leaders who choose to ignore this reality will be viewed as delusional, a neurological problem that will require nothing less than major boardroom surgery.