Business of ITReinventing IT in Difficult Times

Romi Mahajan

IT organizations are in a difficult era. The neo-Taylorist push for efficiency (Frederick Winslow Taylor was among the first efficiency experts), coupled with an unprecedented downturn in the economy, has delivered a one-two punch to already struggling organizations. The flight-towards-mediocrity ethos, driven by a semi-religious obsession with overhead reduction, has driven the IT organization—which never quite made it into the limelight it had been seeking—to its current nadir. For the first time in recent memory, IT professionals find themselves hard-pressed to find jobs, despite the fact that they have high-barrier-to-entry skills compared to those in many other professions, my own (marketing) included. For this, the blame has to be laid at many doors, some of which are internal to the IT organization and some of which are external. Notions that IT doesn't matter, that commoditization defines IT, and that the cloud makes IT less important have all served to further push the nail into the perception coffin. Given this, how best should IT organizations go about reclaiming the ground they have given up over the past decade, to reveal their true value that is often hidden? There are a number of approaches they can take.

The Beat-Chest Approach: For most of the industrialized world, IT is as fundamental to the smooth workings of business and government as is plumbing. In the process, however, IT has become thought of much as the Facilities Department is—people are only aware of them when there is a problem and, during those crises, the need for their services fosters resentment. How should IT deal with this? Through marketing, of course. Simply put: tell your story. Communicate frequently with your internal customers. At Ascentium, our IT organization is well-known for its amazing throughput and customer service. It is well-known because it tells its own story often and well, and through this process of education, others grow to understand the complexities and rigors of their jobs. We have an internal alias called "kudos" and our IT organization gets more kudos than any other department in the company. Our IT organization moved our datacenter into a new facility two months ago. They did it on a Saturday. E-mail and other shared services were down for only four hours. Anticipating that even that a small outage would be an issue, our Director of IT sent out weekly e-mails four weeks before the move and daily e-mails in the last three days telling the company EXACTLY what they were doing and EXACTLY how we would all be affected. Lo and behold, they completed the move without a glitch and won rave reviews. In a down economy, people are even less willing to forgive; communicate your way into the hearts and minds of your internal customers. Lack of communication will result in further peril.

The Bolshevik Approach: Crisis breeds revolution and revolution breeds change. Thus the cloud of economic doom enveloping us has a silver lining: organizations are seeking ways to redefine themselves in order to, well, survive. There is desire for change and from this crucible emerges a revolutionary cadre of those who seek to overturn the current state. IT organizations have to be part of this revolutionary wave in order to prosper. To participate, IT organizations must first of all make common cause with other internal organizations caught in the same vise. In the December 2008 Field Notes column in TechNet Magazine, I wrote an article called "Mark{IT}ing: Synergy in the Shadows" about the enormous potential of linking IT-and Marketing ( Both of these organizations have been asked to justify themselves in ways they never had to before. Both are asked to do more with less. Marketing can learn a lot from the customer-service orientation and throughput efficiency of IT, and IT can learn from the "visibility" approach of Marketing. In practice, both organizations must reject the myopic notions of efficiency engendered by the corporate genuflection to the fixed ideas of Accounting and turn, instead, to defining the terms of their own trade. Revolution through innovation is a key pillar in the resurgence of IT. No revolution succeeds, however, without numbers, so build bridges now. Tomorrow is too late.

The Borg Approach: If the key "enemy" of IT is Accounting, why not kill the Accounting Department with kindness? Why not absorb Accounting into the fold of IT by providing more value to the company than any CFO possibly could? The key here is for IT professionals to ally themselves with people in Corporate Systems who, frankly, increasingly need allies as much as IT or Marketing folks do. As Corporate Systems teams (who usually report into a CFO or CFO-like structure) are tasked with finding efficiencies in operations and analyzing reams of sometimes-useful-sometimes-not data in order to cut costs and work out redundancies, they will find it useful to team with IT folks.. Together, Corporate Systems and IT can work with business groups and other horizontal departments to determine new areas for investment or areas to redeploy key personnel who are doing overlapping jobs. All large enterprises have massive overlaps. The usual managerial response is to cut people; the best response (should a company have even a modicum of staying power) is to quickly expose redundancies and put the resources to new use, in particular to find new areas of growth. IT folks do this sort of thing every day. True, the objects of their study are often inanimate objects like servers or data, but that doesn't change the point. IT organizations analyze reams of data constantly and can be very helpful to the process of reinvention-through-redeployment of talent that many enterprises sorely need. To do so, however, IT must assimilate Accounting into its own body.

The Betterment Approach: Difficult times call for extreme measures. Often these measures are enacted externally; equally often, these measures are inward facing as we each seek to find ways to excel. IT professionals have to take this process very seriously if they are to thrive. Some suggestions:

  • Don't eschew learning new things, new paradigms, new products, and new methods; don't think your current knowledge base as an endpoint. In fact, there is always more to learn.
  • Gather skills outside of your job area. Be ready for the sea-changes that very well might hit IT and technology in general at any time.
  • Learn to read a balance sheet. Understand the underlying economics of industries your company is in, works with, and depends on. Make job bets only after knowing the numbers.
  • Expand your worldview. Be that person who is marked as strategic and eclectic in intellect, not simply narrowly intelligent.
  • Write. Write your thoughts and hone them. Make them crisp. Express them. Gain both clarity and credence simultaneously.
  • Read widely. Bring complex knowledge to bear on even simple tasks.

The Buffet Approach: The new economy will demand versatility. IT professionals will thus have to embrace elements of each of the approaches. The key is to make sure all the dishes you select make for a good meal. If you are an IT manager, you should immediately set up meetings with peers and managers in other organizations to find out how your team can help the overall cause better. If you are a working IT professional without management responsibility, you should do the same with five of your customers. Through this process, you will inevitably be given feedback hewing to the approaches above. What you do with that feedback, of course, will determine your longevity and happiness in the IT of the new economy.

I have always felt that IT professionals are misunderstood but that they make matters worse by not telling their stories and proactively adding value in non-IT spaces. These days, when you can't escape the barrage of bad news, and the fear of layoffs and salary reductions looms large, all people, IT professionals and others alike, have to find ways to reinvent themselves and their organizations in order to maintain an edge.

IT organizations have a great deal of potential. Indeed, they have many surprises inside. The key is making them known to the world.

Romi Mahajan is Chief Marketing Officer of Ascentium Corporation. Before joining Ascentium, he spent over 7 years at Microsoft, where his last role was as Director of Technical Audience and Platform Marketing. Romi is widely published in the areas of technology, politics, economics, and sociology.