IT is going away. Again.

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Predictions of IT’s demise have two constants: The predictions keep on coming, and IT continues to matter. Profoundly.

By Bob Lewis | December 8, 2014
Topics: Cloud, Industry Commentary, NewPost, Strategy and Tactics, Technology

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My friend Adam Hartung, author of Forbes‘ “Phoenix Principle” blog, is convinced we’re in the throes of a megatrend away from owning stuff. He’s further convinced this trend spells the end of corporate IT.

As covered in last week’s missive, this trend toward rentership is nowhere near an open-and-shut case. As correspondent Tim Harris points out, it’s a simple algorithm: If the costs of ownership (including intangibles), divided by total usage exceeds the cost of renting, rent. Otherwise don’t.

As for the death of IT:

According to The Phoenix Principle, the reason we wanted PCs in the first place was because of all the data we wanted to put on them. That data will now be in the cloud, so we don’t need PCs anymore.

This is bad history. I was there. We wanted PCs because of the programs we could run on them. That’s why we want smartphones too.

Yes, mobile devices can do some of what PCs can do. But does anyone seriously think you can replace a customer service rep’s PC and voice terminal with a smartphone?

The Phoenix Principle’s clincher: “What will a company need an IT department to do if employees use their own mobile devices, across common networks, using apps that cost a few bucks and store files on secure clouds?”

Answer: If?

We’ve seen this movie before. In the PC’s early days there were those who figured business users would soon be able to do on their PCs everything IT did on the mainframe, using cheap, simple programs without any need for IT involvement.

Another Phoenix Principle point: “If corporate technology is reduced to just operating some “core” large functions like accounting, how big — or strategic — is IT? The “T” (technology) becomes irrelevant as people focus on gathering and analyzing information. But that’s not been the historical training for IT employees.”

I agree. This entirely imaginary IT that never, for example, existed, will go away.

Unlike real IT, which runs, not “just” some “core” large functions like accounting. It runs systems that support every function in the enterprise, from supply chain to manufacturing to sales to finance and accounting to human resources to marketing. Oh, and information technology is required for every change business executives can envision, too.

It’s as strategic as things get.

So best of luck running an enterprise on apps that cost a few bucks with files stored on secure clouds. I can see JPMorgan Chase’s CFO right now, closing the year-end books with his Android edition of Quicken.

Or, for that matter, the CMO calculating some complex analytics on a petabyte Hadoop data set stored in the cloud with her ten-buck iPhone app. “Siri, which customer demographic and psychographic segments are most likely to want our new line of fashions? Rank them in order of size and willingness to buy, correlated with color and fabric preferences.”

This latest forecast of IT going away because it’s now all so easy completely misses everything IT has actually been doing all these years:

IT isn’t going away any time soon. One wonders why, for so many years, so many management pundits have engaged in so much wishful thinking on the subject.

My guess: IT is expensive and hard to understand. Shipping it all offshore, into the cloud, or both means not having to worry about it anymore. Sure it does.

And if the logic required to accept this proposition is shaky, that’s okay, because the rules of confirmation bias are clear:

We only scrutinize evidence and logic that disagrees with what we want to be true.

6 Responses to “IT is going away. Again.”

  1. Roger Loeb says:

    Great commentary! I, too, lived through the previous variants on this theme. First it was minicomputers, then it was microcomputers, and both were supposedly going to end the “tyranny of DP.” (DP as in data processing, which is what we were doing before we got promoted to information processing.) And each generation appeared significantly less expensive, until the new owners discovered that the real costs weren’t in hardware, they were in systems analysis and design, development, documentation, maintenance, and… data (information) management. Someone still has to do that difficult stuff, and it takes actual skills and knowledge. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any information properly structured and appropriately secured for you to play with on your smartphone or itty-bitty tablet or smart watch or the toy of the week. Or you could populate your spreadsheet with random bits from the ether, which could be just as meaningful and might lead to better decisions 🙂

  2. Allison says:

    Adding to the list of IT work that is relevant regardless of platform, I would add ‘support’ – who you gonna call when things don’t behave the way they should. Back when I was involved in an early client/server application being touted for ease of use, we kept reminding management that easy to use does NOT mean easy to support, and we projected that the new system would need more, higher skilled (scarce) people to provide end user support.

    • Bob Lewis says:

      But … but … with a cloud vendor you can call for support. Of course, they’ll make sure to tell you their servers are up, which makes your inability to reach them Someone Else’s Problem.

  3. Bob Harris` says:

    Really good article, though I have a different or maybe just additional theory about why this fundamental nonacceptance of IT’s value persists: management rarely understands how computer technology really works to sustain and support the continued existence, as well as the organization’s success. So management has to trust blindly and give IT management unsupervised power over the organization, for the life of the organization. This is very scary for them, so their natural urge is to kill, control, or contain something that has unavoidable power over them.

    Through communication, management has to trust IT to implement its recommendations, like you trust your dentist to tell you how to maintain good dental health, even though you really understand neither the medicine, nor the science behind the dentist’s recommendations.

    If you have to pay for your dental expenses 100% out of pocket, it’s to stay rational when your dentist’s recommendations keep costing you money that you don’t know that you can afford. I suspect a similar dynamic works against IT.

  4. Dave Conner says:

    Good article. I’ve hear the same thing in different forms for 25 years. Another answer to your question –

    “why, for so many years, so many management pundits have engaged in so much wishful thinking on the subject thinking on the subject”?

    Well, because other columnists, bloggers etc. pick it up… and they get a little free press. I really think that is it. The more dissemination, the more likely someone at C level will hear about it and want to explore it.

    And like you said – people dont like hard to understand things like IT. Give them an alternative, and they will gravitate to the idea, no matter how outrageous it may sound.

  5. Dave says:

    There is a greater flaw in the argument. As you point out Bob, well done IT is all about meeting strategic needs which differ greatly from business to business. But even in the supposed cloud solves everything there remains the issue of integration.

    I cannot buy a system that runs everything my business does. I need to integrate a variety of technologies and applications together. I also need to exchange data with a variety of other businesses and yes, even the government.

    Oh, and I also need to do it securely.

    Every time I read one of the magic bullet ideas I do what the article more than deserves. Toss it in a recycle bin.