Field NotesBuilding Strategic Vision into IT

Romi Mahajan

The French philosopher Auguste Comte said, "Savoir pour prévoir et prévoir pour pouvoir." Roughly translated, that means you have to know to have vision, and you have to have vision to be able. Simply put, the ability to see ahead renders one capable, even powerful. In business circles, this concept can be distilled to "strategic vision," and it allows you to envision tomorrow's world but act on it today. Great business leaders have this ability in abundance. But what about IT professionals? Do we have this capability? And if we do, can we articulate it in the right way?

At Tech Ed 2008, I had the privilege of arranging, for the fourth time, a panel discussion on the consumerization of IT. One of the major areas of debate focused on how IT organizations should react with the increasing introduction of consumer technologies into the workplace, and how they can learn to predict what's around the bend. I took the position that IT has to be more flexible than it generally is to accept the rights and desires of its users and, further, that IT organizations have to "skate to the puck" in order to be powerful.

Pretty basic stuff you say? Well, let's look at the reactions from the audience, which essentially took four forms:

  • IT organizations have to manage costs, so allowing too much freedom and spending too much time and money trying to predict what non-IT users need is not within their charter.
  • IT organizations are reactive—slaves to the pager—and therefore have no ability to evolve.
  • IT organizations aren't creative.
  • IT organizations should absolutely anticipate and support the needs of their users; where do I sign up?

Unfortunately, the last category comprised the views of perhaps 10% of the audience.

My argument is that we have to look at the picture upside-down. Let's not concentrate on what IT orgs are today, let's look at what they could be. To do this, let's step out of our designated roles for a moment and think about the knowledge and experience we ourselves have gained as consumers. This is the start of strategic vision.

What could IT organizations be? They could be entities actively engaged in meeting the future. They could invest in a lot of training in new technologies and new customer behaviors. More young people whose entire experience with computing has been in a Web 2.0 world could be hired into their ranks. They can be given leeway to spend 10–15% of their total time on non-project-based, non-reactive, new and innovative areas of technology and business. They can be organically tied to development organizations and intermingle cultures, charters, and knowledge.

How can IT benefit from IT pros' own experiences as consumers? Imagine all of the things you do today on the Web—how you arrange photos, how you keep in touch with family calendars, how you book tables at restaurants, how you buy things at good prices, how you stay in touch with people who share similar hobbies or quirks, and so on. Develop a list of all of the places you hang out on the Internet. Tell your colleagues to do the same, and make sure that you all consider that just as you do, so do all of your customers, the end users. Now you know what you are facing from your end users, and now you can also feel free to co-opt these technologies into ones with business applications.

Soon IT will be the ones sending notes to the CEO about how the industry is changing, what to concentrate on and invest in for the future, what the new marketing channels are that work with what audiences, what form-factors are key now and which are emerging, and even how to sell more widgets or services and make customers happy in the process.

Suddenly, IT folks are not limited to back-room operations. We are key to the business; and suddenly we walk with more dignity and pride and receive more acclaim. And we reclaim our rightful places at the intellectual and practical center of what our companies, organizations, and governments do.

Romi Mahajan is Chief Marketing Officer of Ascentium Corporation. Before joining Ascentium, he spent more than 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.