By Thornton May
Futurist, Senior Advisor with GP, Executive Director & Dean - IT Leadership Academy
Anthropologists love stories. Storytelling is what we humans do. It was what our various Homo precursors did when huddled around pre-agricultural age campfires. And it is what modern humans now do illuminated by the glow of the many screens that define, inform and enrich our digitally-surrounded lives.
“Stories are Trojan horses for sneaking messages into the fortified citadel of the human mind,” a cognitive scientist turned enterprise transformation consultant colleague eloquently explained to me.
Many executives forget that in addition to being a basic part of human existence and a mechanism for inducing change, the stories we tell and the stories told about us tell stories themselves.
IT’s Master Narrative
As part of a multi-institution examination of the place of information technology management (IT) in corporate history I have been asked to study the stories being told about the function. A recurring leitmotif in the historical story of IT has been “otherness” [i.e., the separation that exists between those who perform/manage the computational arts and the rest of the world].
This distance between IT and sic “normal folk” dominated the headlines of the trade press during most of the 1990s manifesting itself in the over-used and frequently abused term “Alignment.” The most employable CIOs were thought to be those individuals who could “align” the capabilities and deliverables of the IT “other” with the business/enterprise whole.
A telling example of this IT otherness can be found in the epoch-defining film Jurassic Park . The film’s IT protagonist Dennis Nedry [played brilliantly by Wayne Knight – perhaps best known for his role as Newman in the Seinfeld sit-com] symbolizes IT otherness. This IT geek is not just not-aligned, he is acting in direct opposition to the needs of the enterprise. The Nedry character gives voice to just about every IT stereotype. He is poorly-dressed, out-of-shape, socially maladjusted, self-absorbed and easy-to-hate.
That tragically out of date and unsupported by empirical evidence stereotype is not the IT “other” I will be talking about in this blog.
At a series of events in the US, the UK and Amsterdam, I presented an aural Rorschach test to large groups of non-IT executives. I posed the question, “When you think of IT, what is the word or phrase that first comes to mind?” Terms like “late,” “expensive,” and “out of touch” frequently were cited.
With a set of just-entering the workforce Millennials I asked the question another way. I asked this group what they thought the “I” in CIO really stood for. They responded “Insignificant,” “Invisible,” and “In-the-way”. The default narrative regarding IT – in many conversations happening today – is that IT is a problem.
IT as A Valued Resource: An Emerging Tale
Sitting in the basement of the St. Paul’s Cathedral in London I heard the IT “other” I am talking about. John Hunter, head of Division at European Court of Human Rights explained how the IT function in his organization is not viewed as a “necessary evil,” is not viewed as “the place good ideas go to die” and is not viewed as a “barrier to enterprise performance.” In John’s words, “People like IT.” IT is a respected and important part of the European Court of Human Rights essential mission.
L.S. Lowry painted the “other” Britain [http://goo.gl/f1n0Q], an unsentimental industrial Britain that was at odds with the top-of-mind narrative that ‘England’ had inherited, as a picture of itself, from the eighteenth century [e.g., the cult of the countryside].
I am hoping that readers will be able to move beyond the generally accepted narrative that IT is doing something wrong to the “other” IT, an IT that is connected to the hopes and dreams of the enterprise; an IT that creates value.