The elephant in IT's room

There is a difference between form and function. IT departments often deliver the form (systems, infrastructures, services), but our businesses want the function (well managed customer relationships, reduced costs, competitive differentiation).

There is a difference between form and function. IT departments often deliver the form (systems, infrastructures, services), but our businesses want the function (well managed customer relationships, reduced costs, competitive differentiation). This is the difference between outputs and outcomes - IT deliver outputs, business wants outcomes.

When asked what they really want from their IT departments, CEOs are uncommonly consistent. They want: "IT without fuss, involvement in business improvements, and appropriate leadership." Whenever I talk to IT management, there seem to be some invisible words here - they don't see "without fuss", they don't see "involved" and they don't see "appropriate" yet these are the clear outcomes required by CEOs - in fact these are the only words CEOs often see.

IT people focus on the form: "Deliver IT (we've got an SLA so that's covered), business improvement (yeah, we deliver systems on time and in budget), and leadership (we're subscribing to various research houses - we know what's going on out there)."

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Business people want the function - "without fuss, involved and appropriate." (Funny there's not a lot of technology there). But that's the point. That's the elephant in IT's room which they don't talk about. Business wants business outcomes, and the technology is just the medium that IT departments use to deliver these outcomes. Here's the elephant: IT's NOT ABOUT THE TECHNOLOGY!

I used to think that "IT" was a noun - it named the department that dealt with technology. I have come to realise that "IT" is an adjective - it describes the area in which the IT department works to deliver business results. If you think of yourself as the IT department you're focusing on the form. If you think of yourself as the business results department which uses technology to deliver these results - now you can see the elephant - you're focused on the function.

So why do we even call ourselves the IT department? Forget about the "I" in IT, we've never delivered on that score. And calling ourselves the "T" department is just silly - it focuses again on the form not the function.

At the recent Ovum Industry Congress I coined a new term: ACT. I think that those who can see the elephant in their room should be focused on "Applied Competitive Technologies." Applied: This is the focus on the function - the business results, the involved benefits realisation if you will; Competitive: This is the focus on the appropriate leadership - All technology is not good for all companies (For example: e-mail killed Post Office revenues), so what technologies have meaning (positive and negative) for your organisation?; And Technologies: Yes there is still an element of technology in what we do, but that should be a mere 20% of the ACT department's activities.

I propose a little metaphorical safari, with elephants as the target. What should the IT department do to meet business expectations? (Clue: It's not technology!)

Moving from IT to ACT is not a quick or simple process - it's a journey. One that I'll explore further in later articles. But first you have to see the elephant in your room.

Terry White is the Research Director of CXO Advisor. Contact him at

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CEOs deserve to have those outcomes. That's what we're being paid for, after all. But it's a give and take relationship. If they want those outcomes, they need to give us the resources and the empowerment to get the job done. 
IT can lose sight of the big picture because it's under a constant time crunch. And far too often unaware of the big picture at all. IT would do a far better job if they were given the information and finances and staff they need to do the job. Not fair to nurture the unknown, then complain that the finished job doesn't match the results you had hidden in your mind.
IT is just means to an end. Business owns (supposed to own) the vision. IT delivers what it's been asked for. Change the vision, change the incentives to change the outcomes.
I’ve seen a subtle shift lately, in which IT does begin to focus on function. I’ve seen it in companies where IT transitions from a technology provider to a trusted business partner that work together with the business to provide viable solutions. I’ve seen it in businesses where the IT department shifts more towards service delivery, offering services that provide the functionality needed by the business. These changes help address the problems that @abuell and @ncberns both discuss.