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Resistance is Futile: IT and the Business are One

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The artificial divide between IT and business provides a reasonably clear structure that is comforting to those in IT. It almost serves as a justification for the otherworldly culture that pervades IT, as if to say that because IT is distinct from the business it has to pay attention to its own technical priorities first. In the business there is increasing distress caused by the idea that a colony of aliens is not only lodged in their midst, but is a huge determining factor in what the enterprise can and cannot do.

There is no escape from the fact that data is a corporate resource. This is not a mantra, even though it is often repeated without understanding its implications. It is really true. The realization of this truth is pushing the huge current wave of data integration, be it between real-time operational systems or for business intelligence.

 

Is IT Different?

IT seems to have learned very few lessons. IT is still oriented to projects, technology and its own internal culture. This does not match with other horizontal functions of businesses. Each of these functions manages a special corporate resource but does not see itself as existing in a parallel universe.

Money is a corporate resource. It exists everywhere in the enterprise. There are stewards of money - not owners of money. There is a finance function. Does the finance function act as if it is outside the business? No, it does not. It sees itself as integrated into the business.

People are a corporate asset. It is often argued that they are the most important asset. They exist everywhere in the enterprise. There are stewards of people - not owners of people. Or, if you prefer, rather than people, we can speak of roles filled by individuals with skills. There is an HR function. Does the HR function act as if it is outside the business? No, it does not. It sees itself as integrated into the business.

Facilities (buildings) are a corporate asset, no matter if they are rented or owned. They exist everywhere in the enterprise. There are corporate stewards of facilities who do not own the facilities. There is a facilities management function. Does the facilities management function act as if it is outside the business? No, it does not. It sees itself as integrated into the business.

Then there is IT. Data is a corporate asset. It exists everywhere in the enterprise. There are stewards of data. No individuals own it - it is the property of the enterprise. There is an IT function, which, as we know, sees itself as somehow outside the rest of the enterprise.

There are limits to these analogies. At some point, HR professionals see themselves as being part of a special competency. Even so, IT is still much further away than any other function in terms of its cultural alignment with the business.

Welcome to the Collective

It is one thing to ask if IT should culturally regard itself as part of the rest of the enterprise. However, what about questioning the fundamental premise that underlies IT seeing itself as somehow separate from the business?

When I do analysis, I like to think in terms of “pure” business requirements. That decouples what is required from the way things are actually implemented at the moment. When I first began my career 25 years ago, that was not too difficult to do. It has become progressively more difficult since. It is certainly much more difficult to do for anything that involves data integration compared to dealing with operational silos. But even with operational silos, things are difficult now. What has happened is that the users themselves cannot distinguish their actual operational or informational requirements from the way these requirements are currently implemented. Years ago, it was easier for analysts to differentiate. Today, it is a lot less clear. We have had constant evolution of the IT infrastructures in enterprises coupled with constant staff turnover. Maybe the rates of change are slow, but it has now come to the point where users can often not express what they do without including terms describing the applications and data they work with. Analysts, thus, find it much harder to abstract away entirely from the implementation layer.

It is as if businesses are now part human and part cybernetic collectives, like the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is true for the enterprise as a whole, often for individual business units and perhaps for individual users themselves. I am struck by the fact that most users describe the way they work based upon a unified view of themselves and the applications they interact with.

It seems that today, information management is so heavily assimilated into enterprises that there is no clear boundary between IT and the business. If this is so, then the concept that IT is somehow different than the business is a myth. At a very high level, everyone would probably agree with this, but at levels where we do the work, IT still finds it extremely comforting to segregate itself from the rest of the enterprise.

The unspoken assumptions that have been with us for the past several decades, and which have allowed IT to exist in its own protective cocoon, are being proven to be less and less valid. The new Borg-like world of the enterprise beckons, but we cling to myths of the past.

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