image InformationWeek has been out and about talking up their most recent CIO survey and keeps calling attention to the fact that one in three CIOs see creating a new business or business model as a driver in 2011. This is not a new phenomenon, but one in three is more CIOs than I would have intuitively thought, so I started to think about it.

There has always been a drive, at least in every company I’ve worked for, that if you want to grow your ivory tower you need to generate revenue. Because IT is a support function – it was infrastructure as a service long before cloud computing came along, if you look at it in the right light – this mentality didn’t generally drive CIOs. Serving the business in the best manner possible was huge on CIO’s list of things to do, but generating revenue just didn’t drive them. Which leads to the question “why now?”

The answer to that question is likely manifold. First, there are those businesses where IT is the business. An online trading house, for example, doesn’t exist without IT. The same is true of Amazon, eBay, and a host of other companies. For those companies, being in IT is 100% being on the business side of the house. Your innovations and modifications are to the lifeblood of the company. Then there’s the advent of cloud, which has people buzzing (right or wrong) about business value and IT as a Service. That has to be playing in these CIO’s minds. And finally, it seems that every year the mantra “do more with less” has been echoing about the halls of IT, and CIOs might just be reaching out for ways to do more and add staff.

But in the end, no matter whether you’re in insurance, utilities, telecom, manufacturing, whatever, IT does add value to the business, and becoming the business is not required to show that fact. Everywhere I have had the opportunity to work, either as a consultant or full-time employee, the company could not function at the level it does without IT. We all know that, the business knows that, the thing is that IT is horrible about communicating that fact. And always has been.

So if you’re in a business whose product is not software, focus on enabling the business, not in creating new business. Lori and I were just chatting this survey up, and she brought up one of the cloud-o-nomics points that makes normal IT folks shudder. No, you’re not generally going to lease out extra capacity to random people. Unless you are in the cloud business, selling cloud services is a distraction from your purpose – to support the business.

You’ve got virtualization to worry about, many of you are starting to look at virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), cloud is on your radar, security concerns continue to leave a dark cloud over IT (yeah I used that allegory), and that’s before you even touch the specific needs of your market and organization. Do not invent work. I’m not saying ignore a good idea – much of the great software out there was created by people who had an internal need and once they solved it they shared it with the world – but don’t say “create new lines of business” as a directive unless your organization is moving that direction.

image The point is that IT grew to the behemoth that it is because the business needed support. That investment is reaping rewards, but unless it was specifically made with the aim of getting into new businesses or business models, there is a risk associated with bleeding off some of those resources on speculative productization efforts. Make sure you’re doing what you’re there for, and make certain the business knows it. IT runs large swaths of the business in a fashion so highly automated that without it, the business would implode. I’m not over-exaggerating here, stop and think what order volume would be with no PCs. Now talk with the business about that. Let them know how much growth is directly the result of IT. I remember an insurance company I worked at doing disaster planning – if HQ was wiped out, likely there would be people needing the services of their insurer – and the plan was to shift to doing everything by hand. Eventually the conclusion was reached that it was not feasible to do that, and a secondary, geographically remote, datacenter was built. That was a golden opportunity to point out that the business wouldn’t be what it was without IT, but from what I could tell, no one was sending that message other than myself, and I was an IT architect, so I was sending that message mostly to IT in the hopes that managers would pick up on it.

So if you’re not an IT business, stay focused on supporting those on the business side. Make every decision based upon “does this help the business”, and make it clear that’s why you’re making it. It’s not as cool as creating new products, but if you want to create new products in IT, then go to work for a business in the IT space. They’re a lot of fun, in my experience, and then your energy will be directed in the right way. But for those in non-IT businesses, show how your initiatives will improve things for the business, and if you can’t, then consider very carefully whether that item should be an IT initiative.

Again, the problem is nothing new, since the first network cable was run, something as simple as “we have to upgrade this network segment or bad things will happen in the future” has been a hard sell. Those who will be most successful at IT management will not be those looking to do businesses job for them, but those who can communicate why IT initiatives will help the business grow.

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