Executives Get the IT They Deserve

Executives Get the IT They Deserve

Many executives pine for their internal IT systems to give them a more consumer-friendly experience. They point to the simplicity, ease of use, and hassle-free nature of the digital services they use in their personal lives: the apps on their smart phone that make services available at the push of a button, software that can be installed and configured with the click of an icon, the ability to plug a printer into a laptop’s USB port and have it ready to print, a tablet that can be connected to the internet without any cautionary pop-ups warning about potential security risks or possible compatibility problems.

In the consumer IT world everything just seems to work, they lament. Why does corporate IT make things so complicated?

Unfortunately, most executives don’t recognize that consumer IT and enterprise IT are different animals. They don’t understand that they must play the pivotal role in the critical decisions that shape enterprise IT — decisions that they leave to the likes of Yahoo, Apple, Google, and Vodafone in the consumer world.

In the consumer world, all digital services are vanilla versions. Sometimes, you can opt for either cheaper or more expensive versions with less or more functionality. But as a customer, you have no input into what is offered; you either take it or leave it.

In the corporate world, however, the “leave it” option typically doesn’t exist. All too often the functionality, user experience, logic, and workflow decisions of exactly how the application will work are made by the software vendor or app developer with no input from users. This is a colossal mistake and is the downfall of many IT projects. While a vanilla version of a software application can be okay (and many corporations use standard versions of major vendors’ ERP software), any choice should be a business decision made by business managers for operational and strategic reasons.

With consumer IT, the services on offer are, for the most part, “point” solutions delivered from the cloud, operating in an asynchronous mode. Consider that you wish to travel to another city to see your favorite band play a gig. Unless you have already established online profiles at the companies, when you book a flight, a rental car, a hotel, and the concert tickets, you will have to enter your name, address, phone numbers, and credit card details for each and follow each company’s unique booking process. Aggregators like Expedia and some airlines will argue that they do allow you to book both flight and hotel from the same portal. But what if you wish to stay at a boutique hotel that is not a partner? And can you really be sure that you are getting the best deal?

Operating this way today is a big no-no in the corporate world. Imagine if your company’s internal applications couldn’t share data and processes carrying out similar functions or tasks, had different interfaces and screen layouts, and required different passwords. Just think of the inefficiencies and opportunities for errors.

To ensure this doesn’t happen, some sort of architectural integrity is required. Executives must guide and shape such a blueprint. It should clearly describe how the organization will function and how all the pieces should fit together to help it achieve operational and strategic objectives.

Organizations seek such integration when they buy their ERP systems from vendors like SAP and Oracle. This is currently not easily achieved with cloud computing unless you purchase a system from a vendor that delivers the complete stack. Interoperability across different cloud providers is extremely difficult to realize, and there are few standards. This means that choosing so called “best of breed” solutions is not really feasible if you are looking for integration. Data portability, the ability to seamless move data to another provider, is also a challenge in a cloud computing environment, heightening the risk of being locked into to one particular vendor.

It is for this reason that so-called “shadow IT” — systems or solutions installed by departments or individuals on their own without organizational authorization — can be dangerous. While vendors promote the cloud as transformative, executives need to be careful in interpreting what this really means. Yes, applications that can be accessed via available any browser from most devices on a pay-as-you-go basis can be supplied rapidly, without any hardware or software purchase, but most applications available from the cloud are point solutions for a particular problem, not an enterprise-wide system. Even when applications run on a private cloud, there are still interoperability challenges that make integration difficult to achieve.

When executives are using consumer IT, they don’t have to deal with legacy and complexity issues that afflict the corporate world — the result of dysfunctional purchasing decisions, the acquisitions of businesses with their own IT systems, and operating in multiple countries with different national IT infrastructures, regulations, and customer requirements. All this can lead to the accumulation of diverse IT assets that essentially define what the organization can and cannot do and the strategic options open to it in the short to medium term. With corporate IT, you cannot simply throw away old IT systems and software and replace them with new versions as we typically do with consumer IT.

The security and privacy issues are also different in the enterprise IT world. In our personal lives, we take responsibility for the protection of our own personal data: how we use it, where we put it, and the rights to access it that we assign to others. In the corporate environment, executives are dealing with other peoples’ data — that of customers, employees, suppliers, and citizens. Corporate officers have legal responsibilities for protecting and safeguarding this data, which they cannot abdicate to the CIO and IT organization.

Perhaps the biggest difference is the impact. With consumer IT, making the wrong IT choices or the unavailability of systems or apps might mean inconvenience and frustration. But most of us can work around these nuisances, and life goes on.

However, in the corporate world, most organizations are fundamentally dependent on their IT systems and can’t operate for very long, if at all, without them. The unavailability of certain IT systems can have an immediate devastating effect on their business.

For all these reasons, executives need to accept that how they lead and manage IT is contributing to the problems that their organizations are experiencing with IT. Instead of making their IT department their whipping boy, they must develop a digital strategy that lays out how IT will be harnessed by the organization. Business imperatives should drive this strategy. The absence of such a strategy is the root cause of most of the problems that organizations have with digital initiatives.

In the corporate world, users usually get what they are given because their leaders have not bothered to define what they want. Executives who don’t take the time to develop a digital strategy get the IT they deserve.

 

This article is republished courtesy of Harvard Business Review. Copyright © 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing.

IT Leadership and Management

Comments

Manu (not verified)
January 7, 2016

Nice Article Joe! Its true that Consumer IT is different from Corporate IT but the expectation for both to be similar from End Users/ Businesses never end. With new generation of companies coming with Visulaization tools such as IBM Darwin, Qlik, Tableau it could be a change that the industry sees.

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