When IT goes awry

by Richard Kolkovich

Information technology (IT) is a field born of increasing complexity and choice in computer technology. Before computer science was considered a discipline, physicists and mathematicians programmed computers. Before there was IT, computer scientists managed hardware and software; they even built their own hardware at some point. Now, IT is a loosely defined discipline which ends up, in the business world, governing and managing choices having to do with technology.

According to Merriam-Webster, technology is the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area. Throughout history, technology has been incorporated into society as its usefulness becomes apparent. The plow made farming much easier, so farmers began using it. The plow evolved, becoming better with each iteration. The plow is relatively simple next to a computer, but its path to ubiquity is one the computer and its ilk are following.

Following the plow example, who is focused on the plow? The farmer most certainly is not. As long as the plow does its job, the farmer could care less about it. His goal is to produce as much as he can with the highest possible efficiency. The plow is a tool. It enables him to farm and increases his efficiency, thus providing value. The farmer’s customers don’t care about the plow. They want to buy or barter food from the farmer. How he produced the food is of no concern to them. This leaves the plow manufacturer to care about the plow. The plow manufacturer thrives by selling plows; she cares very much about the plow. But does she use plows to make other plows?

When a company reaches a certain size, the task of managing technology requires a dedicated resource; the IT department is born. This size varies from company to company, depending on that company’s specific needs, but the underlying trend is there. We’ll assume here that the company in question is Spacely Sprockets, so they do not, in fact, sell any form of IT-related services.

What is the role of technology at Spacely Sprockets? It is a tool. Technology enables them to more efficiently and effectively produce sprockets. In this case, the best IT department is an IT department who is never seen or heard from. Ideally, Spacely’s IT department has configured their systems to be completely invisible. Computers never crash, phones never disconnect and printers never make archaic requests such as “PC Load Letter”. Sound too good to be true? It is. Though this level of perfection can probably never be attained, it can be approached.

On this sliding scale of IT perfection, there is a point where IT becomes inhibitory of the company’s business. I fear many companies in the world are at or below this point. Why? I believe incompetence and arrogance account for most cases.

Incompetence (or its brother, ignorance) can cause solutions to be implemented poorly or not at all. Part of the job of an IT department is to recognize where technology could improve business in any way. If no one in the IT department is able to recognize the need for a given technology, it’s unlikely anyone will. These flaws can also yield half-baked policies which end up inhibiting production.

Arrogance is the lower volume offense here, but it can be just as damaging. One case of this type of behavior is the technique of building a fortress. Ever known someone whose job security was that no one knew how to manage what they had built? That’s a fortress. Did this person build the fortress with the sole intention of keeping people out? Not necessarily. There are circumstances where some constrained resource (people or time, usually) can limit transparency. I’d say these situations should at least yield a wiki page in the corporate intranet about the system (don’t have a corporate intranet/wiki? see the previous paragraph…). Arrogance, in some form, can once again yield inhibitory policies. These are typically knowingly inhibitory, meant to draw attention to the power held by the IT department.

What can be done about these problems? Well, to some extent, these are character flaws. Those in charge of hiring can screen the extreme versions of these people very quickly. Once they are in power, though, those in charge of them must have the ability and willingness to deal with potential problems as they are identified. The worst case scenario has an arrogant IT department gone rampant with a CEO who will not lay down the law. IT is just another department. If your sales team isn’t producing, you take action. If your IT department isn’t producing, you need to take action. IT is an integral part of your business but should not control it.