Where has IT’s passion gone?

When was the last time you woke up and wanted to go to work? If you could do anything you wanted, would you be doing what you’re doing today? The future of IT depends on how you — and the people who work for you — answer these questions.

A dark aura of angst seems to have settled on portions of the IT community. In a Jan. 6 Computerworld.com article, the always insightful Patrick Thibodeau reported on a mid-2009 job satisfaction survey by the Corporate Executive Board that should give you pause. It showed a substantive worsening in an already frightening trend of IT employee disengagement from the purposes and goals of the enterprise.

The CEB research indicates that in 2007, only 12% of IT employees were considered “highly engaged.” In 2009, that unacceptably low figure had sunk to 4%. Can this actually be true? Can 96% of the IT workforce really be less than wholly engaged? Was this data pulled from a particularly dark corner of the IT world? Are the IT shops of Western democracies populated by trance-walking zombies exerting just enough effort to keep from going into the career chipper? If the data is truly representative of what’s happening in the IT workplace, the question becomes, What are you as an IT leader going to do about it?

While things may not be as dire as the CEB data indicates, it’s likely that just about every CIO in the Global 2,000 has, at one point in his career, made a presentation to senior management in which he expressed concern over the next generation of IT workers. Do CIO direct reports have the skills necessary to manage the complexities of the future? The people at the top of the enterprise have their doubts.

When I’ve spoken off the record with CIOs’ direct reports around the world, they’ve echoed this concern. Those who will lead next aren’t convinced that they have the executive leadership toolkits for what comes next in IT. Currently, very little is being done to bridge this leadership skills gap.

Further validation of the looming development crisis in IT comes from the deans of executive education programs around the world, who say that there is no tougher sell than trying to persuade organizations to invest in executive development programs for their IT staffs. (There are, of course, exceptions. If they gave Nobel Prizes for IT staff development, Barbra Cooper at Toyota would get one.) Louis Pasteur once famously remarked, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Who is preparing the minds of next-generation leaders for what’s to come?

That there is cause for concern is widely acknowledged, but still we fail to act. We are anxious but immobilized. Many executives in IT are sleepwalking through a high-risk (and high-opportunity) moment in history. IT is entering a 15-year window of unprecedented opportunity to create competitive advantage with technology.

That is, if IT can crawl out from under the ambition-crushing, innovation-sucking, soul-destroying minutiae of just keeping the digital lights on.

When Jimmy Carter gave his inaugural address in 1977, at a low moment for the country, he reminded Americans that “even our great nation has its recognized limits…. We cannot afford to do everything, nor can we afford to lack boldness as we meet the future. So together, in a spirit of individual sacrifice for the common good, we must simply do our best.”

The next generation of IT leaders is ready to step up and do their best. Will the current generation give them the tools and development support to make that happen?

Thornton A. May is a longtime industry observer, management consultant and commentator. You can contact him at [email protected].

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