IT Management: IT Hybridity - The Benefits of Diversity

Diversity doesn’t just refer to having different cultures represented in the IT staff—it also refers to different systems and platforms.

Romi Mahajan

Diversity is a topic every business leader discusses. In most cases, the word “diversity” has come to connote a program for ensuring that a company’s talent pool is balanced along race and gender lines. While that is indeed a laudable goal, diversity has other meanings relative to IT.

The diversity referenced here is one technology leaders must consider: the diversity of systems and platforms upon which they run the business. This is the concept of “IT hybridity.” It’s actually related to the diversity of IT staffing and culture as well.

Let’s base this examination on a set of clear statements:

  1. IT hybridity will offer agility and competitive advantage over the long run.
  2. IT cultural diversity is necessary for organizations to flourish.

That first statement will undoubtedly incite wild disagreement. The second will likely inspire agreement, perhaps punctuated by yawns. Both the disagreement and the yawns are functions of the myopia surrounding IT and how it fits into the organization’s success.

The last decade has been difficult for IT professionals. The perennial pressure to do more with less, the ever-present specter of layoffs, the need to learn a variety of computing paradigms such as cloud computing with scarcely a few hours of training a year, has added to the difficulties faced by IT professionals.

On Your Own

In study after study, IT professionals say they’re too busy reacting to problems to learn anything new. They’re left on their own to innovate and grow (which, by the way, they’ve done very well during this tumultuous decade). Studies also reveal that IT pros love community and peer connection, but get less time every year to attend conferences. They rely on Internet-mediated communities, and lament the paucity of face-to-face interaction with peers. IT professionals also feel removed from other teams, citing psychological distance and lack of understanding of their profession and their function.

This decade has also brought a great deal of change within the industry. The rise of “consumerization” and the valorization of experiential consumer devices, the increasing flexibility of governance structures and the rise of new technologies have piqued innovation-oriented interests within the IT community. 

A decade ago, Apple Inc. was the punch line of jokes. Now it’s the most valuable company in the world. Google was once a search engine. Now it’s an institution—a veritable edifice in the corporate, political and sociological worlds.

A decade ago, Microsoft sold perhaps a billion dollars or two of server software. Now it sells almost 20 billion dollars in that category. A decade ago, the word “cloud” meant atmospheric formations that produced rain. Now it describes large-scale, remote, virtualized computing.

IT professionals have ridden this wave of change to the best of their abilities, but we’re still not quite there for two major reasons:

  1. IT departments are still thought of in antiquated terms, as monoliths of uncultured geeks, removed from “the business.” 
  2. IT professionals haven’t communicated how implicit and essential their work is to the very existence of business.

Another significant reason is the “too little, too late” leadership from the technology industry in telling the IT story. By proxy, there’s also pandering to the myopia of Wall Street-driven business culture. The message from most technology vendors goes something like this:

  • Business is changing fast
  • You need to be smart and agile
  • There are products to make you smart and agile
  • Buy mine
  • Lots of mine
  • You’ll be the most amazing company in the world
  • You’ll beat your competitors
  • You’ll win if you buy mine, lots of mine

Avoid the Monolithic Culture

The main problem with this industry-infecting argument is that it pushes customers toward monoculture and homogeneity. This movement is inherently illogical.

Let’s tackle the issue of homogeneity first. The technology industry is fantastic precisely because it has been able to reinvent itself. It always manages to avoid the stasis that comes with homogeneity. The stalwarts of the 1970s gave way to the power of the new era of computing ushered in by the personal computer.

In the early 1990s, the client/server paradigm took computing out of its silos. Then in the late 1990s, the Internet washed over the industry like a tidal wave. Then came search engines and the mobile revolution. Now there’s social networking. In all these cases, money and talent alike flocked to the latest new thing. The industry evolved.

Homogeneity is anathema to technology. The thought of an IT monoculture or a one-vendor platform should be anathema to any thinking CIO or IT professional. Making dynamism and agility inherent to IT and to business leadership should be the single most important goal of the IT organization.

Next, there’s the issue of logic. Too many vendors fundamentally undercut the value of IT in an unknowing act of masochism. To illustrate this, we need to show the reduction and absurdity in arguments you’ll hear from most vendors these days:

  • Standardize on my platform because my stuff is the best.
  • If you do so you’ll have comparative advantage.
  • In fact, I’ll show you how to do it: I’ll give you prescriptive guidance. Just remember, standardize on my platform.

The problem is, vendors say this to everyone—including your competitors. They say to everyone that standardizing on their platform will give everyone advantage over everyone. In the process, they reduce IT to a commodity. They forget that diverse business needs and goals require diverse configurations of IT. Ergo, the only way to truly get comparative advantage is to have hybridity in your IT structures and to avoid monoculture.

Recast the Culture

This brings us to the IT culture argument. Over the past several years I’ve argued the following:

  • IT and the business are not separate; business is predicated on IT.
  • IT professionals are innovative heroes, even though they’re misunderstood.
  • IT professionals need to usher in a new culture, and tell their story broadly and widely.

We’re overdue for a recasting of IT culture. The IT department has to set the agenda for this culture change. You can’t have it imposed upon you by others who don’t understand either your work or the importance of IT to business. This new culture must be crafted carefully:

  • The proper measure of hybridity—it has to be appropriately introspective.
  • Communication-oriented—as IT professionals you have to engage your counterparts proactively and regularly, and serve as educators.
  • Strike a balance between offense and defense—there will always be fires to extinguish, but sometimes you have to stoke the flames, not just react to flames created by others.

The IT community must challenge itself, its counterparts and the vendor population. You must cast IT in a different light—one that properly conveys the complexity, nuance and importance of IT and you as the IT professional. If you can’t do that, you risk the peril of operating within a short-sighted monoculture.

Romi Mahajan

Romi Mahajan is president of KKM Group. Prior to joining KKM, Mahajan was chief marketing officer of Ascentium Corp. A well-known speaker on the technology and media circuit, he serves on a variety of advisory boards and speaks at more than a dozen industry events per year.