IT careers: The grunt workers and the gurus

Just once I’d like to see one of these respected management journals come out with a six-page report that concludes IT departments can pretty much stay the same in order to be successful.

And yet, I was grateful to a reader who pointed me to a piece in the December issue of the McKinsey Quarterly I had missed in the rush towards the holiday season. Written by Roger Roberts, Hugo Sarrazin, and Johnson Sikes, “Reshaping IT for turbulent times” suggests nothing that most IT managers and CIOs haven’t been hearing for several years, but what it lacks in original insight it makes up for in synthesis. It is a highly well-woven tapestry of major trends in the allocation of technology-related resources, organized into two models whose names, the authors surely hope, will become part of the common vocabulary among the MBA set: “Factory IT” and “Enabling IT.”

Factory IT encompasses the bulk of an organization’s IT activities, applying lessons from the production floor—scale, standardization, and simplification—to drive efficiency, optimize delivery, and lower unit costs. Enabling IT is focused on helping organizations respond more effectively to changing business needs and gain a competitive advantage by spurring innovation and growth.

These two approaches are extremely well outlined in the full piece (registration required) but let me offer the crib notes: Factory IT is undergoing major changes as outsourcing, cloud computing and other forms of managed services are leading to IT staff reductions. Those who are focused on Enabling IT, meanwhile, will likely become critical members of the senior management team. It might be less marketable (but no less accurate) to say that the authors have divided a career in IT into the Grunt Workers and the Gurus.

To be fair, the authors advise IT leaders to develop skills in both areas, but throughout the piece there is a subtle implication that the role of technology professionals will be much less hands-on than it is today. Instead, IT departments will focus on “selecting and validating platforms, setting policies, and promoting capabilities to potential participants,” they write. This is arguably better than the predictions of IT industry Cassandra Nicholas Carr that technology professionals are doomed to disappear from corporate payrolls completely, but not much.

What these and similar management tracts suggest is that IT executives will become much like the consultants with whom they negotiate and partner today: working as little as possible at the shop-floor level but saving their gifts for higher-level tasks. Which is great, except that there may come a time when it’s nice to have someone recommending a server who’s actually set up a server. My experience is that many IT people are doers as well as thinkers. Their insights are informed at least partly by what they have configured, deployed and managed themselves. Maybe now they can all go work at service providers, but I suspect many organizations will want to have their technology leaders closer to the Factory than the experts would like. If no one gets their hands dirty anymore, it’s going to be much harder to effectively clean up the mess IT occasionally makes.



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