The realistic requirements for results-oriented IT

I never liked the word “enabler.” It was a little too AA for me.

That’s what was refreshing about reading a recent Editor’s Summary of a report prepared by Gartner Inc. called “Leading in Times of Transition: The 2010 CIO Agenda.” Through interviews with more than 1,500 chief information officers, the market research firm identified not only spending patterns but where senior IT executives are focusing on in terms of strategic priority.

“Overall, CIOs have the opportunity to begin transitioning IT from managing resources to managing for results,” the report says. “Past attempts to manage IT as a business, profit center or similar entity ran up against economic, strategic and technological barriers. In 2010 and beyond, these barriers are coming down, giving CIOs the opportunity to lead in transitioning IT to a new future.”

Sounds optimistic, doesn’t it? Also sounds familiar, although I guess there’s a slight shift in emphasizing this particular sea change is not only necessary but possible.

The most interesting graphic in the report, which unfortunately I can’t fully reproduce here, tries to show a sort of before and after picture of an organization focused on resource based IT and one that’s transitioned to results-based IT. Instead of IT that enables the business, for example, IT contributes to the business. Instead of proving the IT department is not wasting resources, CIOs would be proving that the IT department is raising productivity and innovation. Schedules would not be driven by resources but by priority. My favourite was seeing “supplier consolidation leading to commoditization” on the left and “IT competes in a world of enterprise choice” on the right.

Gartner, of course, is the firm behind the famous Hype cycle, and there’s a possibility that even now, despite the helpful fresh start that a nice round number like 2010 implies, we may need to wait a little longer for this picture to be completely painted in. IT infrastructure is still moving towards virtualized environments. Data centres are just introducing more mature automation products. Cloud computing and on-demand application models still have to shake out. Still, there’s a good chance that we’re turning a corner.

One important step in this journey that may not have been fully covered in the Gartner study is the impact this will have on IT department metrics. There is a difference in being graded on keeping the lights on, for example, versus how much deploying a particular application contributed to the bottom line. Such results may not be immediately measurable by the IT department itself but would have to be communicated to the CIO through other departments, including operations or even sales. And those measures may need to be filtered for comment by IT managers to provide the proper context – the results won’t always speak for themselves. For the time being, I think it will make the most sense to combine more traditional forms of evaluating IT managers with this results-oriented outlook. I’ll be discussing one idea for those metrics in a future post, but in the meantime it’s worth remembering that contributing to the business and being ultimately responsible for business results are two different things. IT departments have come a long way, but they’re not there yet, and there could be good reason to argue they should never be.  

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