posted 16 Apr 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 7
Peter Chapple reviews Re-inventing the IT Department by Terry White
TITLE: Re-inventing the IT Department
AUTHOR: Terry white
PUBLISHER: Butterworth-Heinemann (2001)
In this book, Terry White boldly sets out to challenge the conventional role of the IT department within businesses. His aim is to apply his considerable experience, gained as an IT director and consultant with various companies, to provide his view on what is wrong with the traditional IT function. He also aims to provide practical guidance on how to change, or at least question, current practice.
By adopting a ‘them’ (business) and ‘us’ (IT) approach, the author attempts to illustrate the apparent divisions between the IT department and business leadership, strategy and direction. While he believes that in reality there is no divide, he strongly argues that IT needs to be fully involved in the business if it is to be taken seriously, otherwise it could ultimately become a “disabler” rather than an “enabler” of change.
White’s intention is for this to be a practical and thought provoking book, raising questions and then using lateral thinking concepts and personal experience to address the relevant issues. This way readers are drawn into self-analysis and made to question the value of various IT fundamentals, such as methodologies, projects, standards and service level agreements.
The book’s theme is the paradox that as information technology has become more important to business success, and even survival, the IT function in many organisations has remained distant from the business leadership. The lack of understanding of IT issues among senior managers, combined with the IT function’s general lack of awareness of, or even interest, in business issues, has led to an apparent gulf between the two. Furthermore, White argues, as businesses rarely know what they really want when introducing new systems, development projects frequently overrun and costs spiral, leading to a “vicious cycle of IT esteem”. The business reaction is frequently to blame IT, and then to consider outsourcing or calling in ‘solution providers’, supposedly to enable a greater degree of control of information and IT systems. This usually, however, only drives the IT function further from the business strategy and weakens the link between the two.
White suggests that, in the new economy, businesses have become much more reliant on information and information systems. Increased globalisation, improved telecommunications and the internet, in particular, have radically changed the nature of commerce. This in turn has shifted business risk to new areas such as information security and accessibility. The adage that ‘knowledge is power’ is increasingly apparent. This has led to the inexorable rise of the ‘expert’ and the humbling spectacle of senior executives waiting powerless, in the face of technical failure, for the arrival of the ‘man from IT’. The need to retain and appropriately reward these previously much less revered employees, in line with market demands, has also to some extent contributed to the business/IT divide.
The key to success, White proposes, is to closely align the IT function with business strategy and to see IT’s role as “a business role with an IT perspective”. He suggests a number of measures to achieve this, including: “communicating technological change, and its benefits, to the business in a more ‘friendly’ way”; “improving general competence and understanding of IT at all levels”; and “aligning systems processes with the organisation’s vision, mission, strategic intent, values and culture”.
This book will be of great interest to those in both IT and general business management. It is thought provoking and studded with ideas that should strike chords with both IT and business managers alike. Hopefully it will provide the required common understanding of issues that White wishes to see and hence act as a catalyst to deliver the radical change he envisages.
This is a very readable book, offering insightful comment as well as much practical advice on how, as the title suggests, to re-invent the IT department. The text is sprinkled with appropriate quotes from a broad range of sources, including most of the acknowledged business gurus. It thus, additionally, provides a very useful directory for further reading.
Overall the book has a distinct energy and intensity. Although contradictory in places and, perhaps inevitably, not ending with a bang, it does flow well. I found it difficult to put down and it left me full of ideas and a desire to act. I may even find that, over time, it also has the propensity to whisper to me from the bookshelf, calling me to action.
Peter Chapple is an IT executifve for Thales UK – TME Ltd. He can be contacted at: email@example.com