The IT Manager in a New Era

To really understand the job of CIO you have to dig down to the fundamentals of why the IT department exists at all and build from there. Why do organizations find it necessary to create an IT department at all? Why doesn’t each department just handle their own IT? For that matter, why do we even use technology at all? The most fundamental answer is that technology adds value to the critical activities of the business.

Planting Stick 2.jpgThis is a universal attribute of technology that isn’t limited to just information technology. For instance, the earliest farmers used sticks to dig holes in the ground for their seeds. This was time and energy consuming and severely limited the level of food production. At some point, a brilliant technologist created a plow that could be pulled by people or draft animals. Although still made of wood, this plow greatly improved productivity, improving the lives of farmers.

As with most technological improvements this plow, although revolutionary in its design, still had room for significant improvement. The tip being made of wood dulled and broke easily, greatly limiting production. Some enterprising farmers looked for ways to make the wooden tips stronger. Metal was a good solution, but it was limited in supply and was a very expensive solution. Some farmers found ways to use metal only on the most important parts of the plow, thereby keeping costs low but improving productivity.

The practicality of these increasingly metal based plows was based on basic economics. Supply of metal was more abundant. Costs of metal dropped significantly over time and our technical ability to make more complex shapes out of metal improved dramatically. It wasn’t long before the technology curve of metal working enabled all metal plows drawn by draft animals with wheels and seats for the farmer at reasonable prices. All of these improvements drove massive improvements in farm productivity and the diets of ordinary people. However, it also eventually changed the very nature of farming itself.

Metal Blade Wooden Plow.jpgFull Metal Blade Wooden Plow 2.jpgMetal Tipped Wooden Plow.jpg These changes in technology also changed the economic structure of farming. For thousands of years individuals could sustain themselves and their families on small plots of land. As the technology improved farmers increased the size of their plots in accordance with the amount of land they could effectively farm. Over time this plot grew from small gardens to “forty acres and a mule”, to farms of a few hundred acres, then a few thousand. Farming became more and more of a business driven by knowledge and ingenuity as opposed to survival based on physical ability. Today, we have seen the era of small family farms diminish as industrial farms have taken over. Technology has created the industrial farm of thousands upon thousands of acres farmed based on principles of massive economies of scale.

From the perspective of the small independent farmer, technology first brought prosperity but ended in the demise of a way of life. However, looking at the picture from this perspective is much like the perspective of many IT departments today. Technology is changing the IT department as surely as it has changed farming.

In the early days, a technically minded individual with a passion for computers could create a good way of life for himself by taking responsibility for all of the technology in an organization. This action freed other workers from the drudgery of trying to maintain their own computer equipment and made them more productive on critical activities. Early on one person could reasonably master all the technology that an organization used. However, as technology progressed individuals were required to specialize in one area of technology or another.

This is the crucial inflection point in the technology industry that changes everything. Just as farmers went from basic subsistence farming to managing a farm as a business, IT people began to depart from IT person as technical hero to IT person as manager of the IT business.

Those whose vision only encompasses the family farm or the IT hero are likely to see this as the demise of a way of life. However, those whose vision goes deeper, those whose vision includes the reason for farming in the first place, those people will see the beginning of a world of plenty, world where no one goes hungry because we couldn’t produce enough food for everyone. Today’s farmers can feed the world several times over and do so at prices that make even the poorest meals seem like feasts in comparison to meals of a thousand years ago. The purpose of farming is to produce food in abundance, not to produce a farming way of life.

Similarly, the purpose of the IT department is to provide technology in abundance and quality to drive the prosperity of whichever business it is embedded in. Enterprise IT is dramatically changing the lifestyle of the IT hero and ushering in the era of the IT Manager.