Dismantling Conventional IT Wisdom

By Ellen Pearlman








Strategic Thinker: Robert Lewis

Credentials: Lewis is president of IT Catalysts, Inc., author of seven books and more than 650 columns dealing with how to effectively lead IT organizations.

Big Idea:
Forget about treating end-users as internal customers and running IT as a business.

Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, by Robert Lewis, published by IS Survivor Publishing, November 2008.

CIO Zone IT Management Blog


There are some IT management mantras that are so ingrained in IT consultant-speak that I can recite them in my sleep: Run IT as a business, treat internal users as customers, be strategic and align with the business. Robert Lewis, an IT consultant and blogger for CIOZone takes a somewhat different approach to running IT. He describes it all in his latest book, Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, with a mixture of humor and pragmatism.


He sets his sights on dismantling conventional wisdom on many different subjects, including: best practices, metrics, process, employee relationships, strategic IT, internal customers, running IT as a business, and IT projects. I found his section on "the nature of the IT enterprise" particularly insightful since it redefines how IT fits into the business.


One of his assertions is that it doesn't pay to focus your time and energy on aligning IT with the business if you haven't already demonstrated basic competence. "Strategic alignment without competence delivers nothing because zero times anything is still zero," he says. On the other hand, if a CIO does deliver on competence she is still providing some value. So Lewis says if you have to choose between competence or strategic alignment, go for competence, since some value is better than no value.


Another concept that Lewis tackles is the Big Project. "Anyone who has spent any time at all in IT knows a simple, basic fact," he says, "Projects tend to fail, enhancements always succeed." And while much has been written about why projects fail, Lewis says not much has been said about why enhancements succeed. He says they succeed for three reasons: they are simple, developers and end-users communicate directly, and they are short.


Lewis believes big projects should not be undertaken since it's a given that they'll fail. Instead he recommends turning big projects into more digestible and easily achievable enhancements, using adaptive methodologies, with high interactivity between developers and business users (which rules out offshore outsourcing). Although he cautions that overall system planning must still take place so that major modules fit and work together. In addition, technical reviews take on greater importance when going down the enhancements-only path to be sure that shortcuts don't occur that reduce quality.


Next: Focusing on the Right Customer

{mospagebreak title=Focusing on the Right Customer}

The next assertion Lewis tackles is the notion that employees, departments, divisions and business units of a company are IT's internal customers. Everything about this is wrong, he asserts, starting with the definition of customers as anyone who uses your products and services. These people are consumers and not customers, he says. "IT needs to focus on exactly the same customer as everyone else in the enterprise: The real, paying, external customers," he adds.


Part of the problem with the internal customer model is it reduces IT's job to responding to internal requests. The business figures out what technology meets its needs and IT delivers it. That doesn't allow IT to take a leadership role when it comes to identifying new technologies that can solve business problems. IT departments need to be more than suppliers of technology to internal customers if they want to help the business make its products and services more attractive to its external customers. "In healthy companies," Lewis notes, "IT's role is to make the enterprise and those who do the work of the enterprise more effective."


Lewis goes so far as to recommend banishing the phrase "internal customer" from your vocabulary. "If you need to describe your relationship to someone outside of IT, tell them you're in this together, and ask what you need to do together to help their part of the company operate better…Memorize this phrase: 'Our job is to help you succeed.' "


Running IT as a business comes under fire from Lewis for many reasons, starting with the vagueness of what people mean by "business". He illustrates this by listing 11 different definitions of a business, which doesn't begin to tackle all the possibilities there are. Which of these, he asks rhetorically, make no sense for internal IT? Which make just as much sense for internal IT as a department as for internal IT as a business? Which fits only the idea of running internal IT as a business? Not one of the definitions fit the latter, he notes. "There isn't any definition of business, that is, that's useful as a guide for how to run IT differently than you would run it as part of the overall enterprise," he says.


What people really mean when they tell you to run IT as a business, he says, is establish service-level agreements (SLAs) and charge back all costs. These, Lewis says, do not make sense for internal IT. Negotiating SLAs with business managers puts IT and business on opposite sides of the table. That's a no-no for Lewis who is a firm believer in establishing strong relationships between business and IT people. Instead of a contract, Lewis prefers that business managers and IT come to a shared understanding about what is needed for success. This can be documented to be sure there is agreement, but does not need to be in contract form to be dragged out if problems arise. As for charge backs, Lewis's preferred model is to inform those who request IT services what they will cost. This of course works best in companies where each executive "is a leader of the whole company." If everyone wants the company to succeed and not just their turf, this solution is simple and effective.


And if everyone is pulling in the same direction there is no need for "IT projects"—you have business projects. What everyone should be focused on is changing how business operates. And IT's role is to ask: How do you want your operation to run differently and better? IT should not be asking what business users want the software to do. Even IT infrastructure projects are not, strictly speaking, IT projects. "They are still business projects first," says Lewis, and deliver business benefits by reducing costs and managing risk.


Ultimately, IT gets into trouble when the CEO asks: How do we know we're getting our money's worth out of our IT investments? Lewis says this question is fundamentally flawed because there are no IT projects. He says, "IT doesn't deliver value. It enables it." Non-discretionary IT spending is for the ongoing cost of past projects and discretionary spending must be justified by the business through project governance.


No one said running IT is easy, but if Lewis is right, some of the rationale behind IT management is far more complicated than it needs to be.


Also of interest:
Straight to the Top: Becoming a World-Class CIO, by Gregory S. Smith, published by Wiley, April 2006. A CIO's guide to the top job.

CIO Wisdom: Best Practices from Silicon Valley, by Dean Lane, with members of the CIO Community of Practice, published by Prentice Hall PTR, August 2003. What it takes to be a great CIO.

CIOZ Question: What's the worst IT management advice you ever got?

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