Handy advice on making IT work well for a business

People who are good with computer hardware and software often do not the same types of priorities and motivations as those who run the businesses which employ them, and accordingly large enterprises usually encounter some difficulty in making Information Technology work well within the context of the business. Harvard Business Review on Aligning Technology with Strategy provides a collection of eight articles published in the past decade addressing these issues. Some of the ideas discussed:

  • Jeanne Ross and Peter Weill: A company’s management team as a whole must take responsibility for particular strategic decisions regarding IT, rather than simply delegating those decisions to the IT department.
  • Charlie Feld and Donna Stoddard: Effective use of IT requires a long-term IT renewal plan linked to corporate strategy, a simplified unifying corporate technology platform, and a highly functional performance-oriented IT organization
  • Nicholas Carr: There is no longer much advantage to be gained from IT now that everyone has it. To avoid overinvesting: spend less; follow, don’t lead; and focus on risks, not opportunities.
  • Ron Adner and Daniel Snow: It your technology gets superseded, you can still make a bold retreat by focusing on a niche market where the old technology still has advantages or relocating to a new market where the old technology is a superior offering.
  • Richard Nolan and Warren McFarlan: The approach which a board takes to IT depends on what strategic mode the company is in. In support mode, IT systems are not critical and expense can be minimised. In factory mode, systems need to be reliable but not state-of-the-art. In turnaround mode, there is big expenditure on IT but reliability is not yet critical. In strategic mode, IT must be reliable but also innovative to provide competitive advantages.
  • Thomas Davenport: Competitive success can be gained through sophisticated data collection and analysis, particularly when it involves focused analytics efforts, establishing an analytics culture, hiring the right people and using the right technology.
  • Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson: To gain a competitive edge, deploy a consistent technology platform rather than a jumble of legacy systems, innovate better ways of working, and propagate those process innovations throughout the organization.
  • Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler: Companies can free employees to experiment with new technologies if management encourages innovation while managing risk, IT supports and scales employees’ projects, and employees act as “highly empowered resourceful operatives”.

In my opinion, some of the articles are more helpful than others. Nicholas Carr’s advice that IT is now finished and there are no more competitive advantages to be gained has probably not withstood the test of time since it was written in 2003. On the other hand, the last four articles are filled with useful ideas that managers will find helpful in dealing with IT.