IT’s new competency: Getting to ‘Next’

One of the most broken processes in IT today is planning. Fixing this is critical to the future of our discipline. I believe, in fact, that getting us to “next” should become IT’s new core competency.

I am a student of the future. As an undergraduate, I became fascinated with how the people of antiquity dealt with the concept of the future. How a civilization thought about “next” often came to define its “now.”

When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he had in his company a battalion of scientists, artists and engineers. Those 167 intellectuals and scholars represented the crème de la crème of the French intellectual establishment. One of those savants, Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis, was charged with analyzing how ancient Egyptians viewed the future. He concluded that “while Christians prayed for it, the Egyptians actually packed for it.” He was referring to the habit of pharaohs to fill their pyramids with material they thought they would need for the next life.

During roughly the same epoch in which the pharaohs were building pyramids, in 210 B.C., the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, packed for the future by creating the Terracotta Army, life-size funerary statues of 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses.

Both ancient China and early Egypt put a good deal of effort into preparing for what comes next. And both perceived what comes next to be very similar to what was happening then. This is where the modern world differs. One thing everyone today seems to be able to agree upon is that the future is going to be fundamentally different from the present. That makes packing for it more difficult.

Fuzzy Future

Over the past two years, I’ve asked people in our industry what they’ve been doing to prepare for what comes next. My research had two parts. I wanted to know how executives thought the future was going to differ from the present and, with that picture in mind, what they were planning to do about it.

Views of the future were all over the place and tended toward the fuzzy. That’s perhaps to be expected at a transitional moment in history. Of more concern is the impact this endpoint ambiguity is having on IT planning processes — the way we articulate how we get from now to next. While human life expectancy is expanding, IT’s view of the future is not. Bordering on extinction, it would seem, are the once very popular five-year outlooks. Disappearing fast are three-year views. Eighteen months out appears to be the new definition of the future for many IT shops.

One might assume that with a shorter temporal path to travel, IT planning would be simpler and more straightforward. That’s not the case. I asked executives, “When your CEO hears the phrase ‘IT plan,’ what is the first thing that leaps to his mind?” One of the most common responses could be paraphrased as “car wreck.” That is an image problem we have to fix.

As I’ve said before, the foundational elements of any legitimate IT planning process are these four must-knows:

1. Where are we?
2. Where do we want to go? (strategy)
3. How do we get there? (tactics)
4. How do we, the IT team, convince the enterprise to make the trip?

Crisp answers to these questions will put IT back on the track to trust.

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