The mad competitive scramble

Fifteen years ago I said the future of IT was about business not technology (of course I said it to myself back then) and changed my job role accordingly.
Ten years ago I said the future of your career is independent of your employer and I trained 84 people accordingly. Three quit within months of the training.
Seven years ago I decided my career was dependent on my digital presence and founded Two Hills on that premise, as a "portfolio webpreneuer". It is now half my income.
Four years ago I said IT is about the people. Today we hear nothing else.
Now I believe the acceleration of change (the rate of change of the rate of change of change) in IT is unsustainable, and is in fact a crowd hysteria. Just because the technology is changing that fast doesn't mean we have to, or can.

A major driver for that scrabbling rush is "competition". I think competition is an over-used trump-card that needs some close skeptical scrutiny in all the companies playing it. Tweet this

Hank Marquis said

Imagine you work for a multi-billion dollar Fortune-class bricks and mortar firm, traditional silo IT, conservative, ranking #2 in your market. Then along comes an Internet firm. Next thing you know, they're #3 - right behind you. Obviously chasing #1 (ahead of you) isn't the key to survival. Rather you need to "out-do" #3 before they eat your lunch, and in this case that means a total transformation of all aspects of your business, including IT. The business says we've got 3 years to transform or become irrelevant.

Of course marketing, logistics, sales and other non-IT unit must transform how they operate. Which means IT needs to react very quickly indeed... perhaps the business requires BYOD, remote-access, customer network access, social & collaboration, cloud services, shifts from waterfall to Agile, DevOps, new applications, data mining -- even Big Data -- etc. All at breakneck speed, which of course requires a new IT operating model, management changes and cultural shifts from silo to collaborative. In short, organized chaos.

This is a business-driven response to the marketplace, e.g., survival. In most cases, and as in this example, IT should take it's lead from those who pay (directly or indirectly) its bills. In other words, if the business wants something its IT's job to deliver.

I'm not picking on Hank, one of the great thinkers of IT: there is some really thoughtful discussion on that post - go read it all. This a concept repeated everywhere: scramble or die.

The business makes these kinds of decisions in ignorance of IT. It is bad governance and bad management.

ImageIt is not enough to say "IT just have to do it". Often they can't. They just can't. Not in three years. In which case I challenge the assumption that reinvention is the correct business strategy. People can't reorg that fast: the idea that Barnes and Noble could adopt an Amazon culture and practices within 3 years is I think the kind of management silliness that got us into this GFC in the first place.

People can PRETEND to and APPEAR to change, because everything is in heads and on paper: the evidence of practices can be changed quickly. (The reality of the underlying culture and the genuine behaviours is another matter - people only pretend to change quickly).

However IT can't pretend. Systems and data have to really change. And corporate IT can't change that quickly. The legacy investment is too huge and too complex to unpick in weeks or months, or even a couple of years.

If the organisation managed and governed IT properly it would understand this. For most organisations, IT is the whole ship not merely one of the sails. It enables the whole business: breaking IT will break the business. Therefore business needs to understand it properly and assess the implications realistically. The governors (the Board of Directors) have a moral and legal obligation to understand what they are asking for (see Sarbanes Oxley, Basel II, ISO38500 etc...)

But too often the governors and executive managers don't know their obligations, don't understand IT, and refuse to listen. They decree and IT is expected to deliver.

Even if IT can change that quickly - if by some miracle it has a good enterprise architecture that the business hasn't screwed in the past with bad governance decisions like this one - the cost of such change is immense. The business underestimates the cost and refuses to hear reason, and IT ends up eating BAU alive trying to resource an absurd level of under-funded projects chasing unreasonable deadlines.

In the pursuit of speed, an army of "can-do" consultants feast at the to-be-corpse of the the organisation, while it builds the technology debt that will one day kill it by wrecking its clean architecture with desperate make-do compromises to meet the competitive scramble.

Tell me I'm wrong.

It seems to me that the USA is particularly infected with this demented pursuit of speed, with a fixation on quarterly earnings and the short-term fluctuations in share price and market share. But it is spreading everywhere. We can't keep whipping ourselves into this frenzy: something has to pop. The whole world should hang its head in shame at the irrational exuberance that preceded the GFC, with Iceland the case study in normally sober people turning stupid with greed and speed.

The most popular whip with which to slash the flanks of the panting horse of IT and business is competitive pressure: the race to adopt and innovate as if it were the only factor in successful business. This thinking comes - I think - from people with limited understanding or experience of business trying to model business by projecting their own personal consumer experience onto it. The whole world isn't Apple or Amazon; not all products behave like EverNote or Android; and operating your personal computing environment bears no resemblance to the conduct of commercial IT.

There are other ways to compete besides desperately aping a newcomer or scrabbling after the latest techno-fad. There are whole sectors of industry that are not driven by the latest consumer fads and the fickle loyalty of retail customers. Just as the business of IT should be conducted ion a calm and thoughtful manner at a moderated pace, so too most customers are businesses, and they demand and respond at a similarly sensible speed.

The number of companies that are truly facing a tectonic shift in their market is very small compared to how many companies there are where people play the competition card. Sure transformation and revolution are all very exciting but they are not the norm. most of the time when a competitor is closing on you it is because they have managed to improve some boring capability by 5%, or that they just got lucky for a bit. Next year it could all be different.

A soberly run corporation responds to the competitive environment with strategy and power, not haste and panic. Good managers play the long game and good governors give them the space to do so.

If you call yourself a business person, for pity's sake calm down.

See also:

Slow IT
Don't confuse your personal digital experience with business
Talk of IT innovation is the last gasp of the IT cowboys

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