Ill fares the enterprise

Politics and enterprise IT both come down to who’s in control. No wonder both are considered both necessary and, frequently, loathsome.

I made the connection the other day as I was reading Ill Fares The Land, a book by Tony Judt. For those who don’t know him, Judt is an historian whose recent illness – he is suffering from motor neuron disease – has rendered him almost completely inactive physically. Ill Fares The Land was dictated to an assistant, but loses none of its power and forcefulness as a result. The book can be reduced to a simple leftist argument, as some have done, but it could also be considered a revisiting of the age-old question of how we should set our priorities. His summation of our current priorities is rather dim, as seen from the opening lines:

For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest; indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.

I would suggest they not only be posed in the political arena, but in the enterprise, too. Decisions made by IT managers, CIOs and their senior executive teams have an enormous impact on the lives of other people. Not merely in the products and services they can pay for but the quality and outcome of many day-to-day activities.

In the earliest days of the profession, IT professionals were probably concerned with the question of whether something would work. Whether something was a “bad idea” primarily concerned issues around cost, efficiency, and so on, rather than whether the application of technology is “good” in some kind of moral sense.

Today, the key question drilled into IT professionals (speaking as someone who has occasionally held the drill (is whether something will help the business. It no doubt seems presumptive, even insubordinate, for an IT manager to ask if what helps the business is helpful or harmful to customers, or society at large. But in some situations, there might be no better-informed source than the expert who engineers change, which is what makes up the staff of most great IT departments.

Do you really want to spend your life helping a large corporate machine make money? Or do you want to redefine “value” in a way that makes solving problems with technology fulfilling, rewarding, even life-giving? This isn’t just critical for those in the field today, but those who will come after. Judt again:

In a survey of English schoolboys taken in 1949, it was discovered that the more intelligent the boy the more likely he was to choose an interesting career at a reasonable wage over a job that would merely pay well. Today’s schoolchildren and college students can imagine little else but the search for a lucrative job.

Technology remains a relatively lucrative field, but that’s not the point. Let’s give them jobs in which they can take pride. And let’s start by revisiting the notions of why to take them in the first place.

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