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12 July 2005

The paradox of business change

By Andrew Clifford

To be valuable, IT change must be linked to business change. To be doable, it must be kept separate. Navigating this paradox requires education, awareness, respect, and a dose of suspicion.

Looking back at these newsletters over the past few months, I realise that I have been skirting around an important paradox.

On the one hand, I have been writing that all valuable IT change must be preceded by a requirement for business change, that IT change is intimately linked to business change.

On the other, I have been writing of the dangers of muddling IT and business change, of the need to clearly distinguish between problems that IT can solve, and problems that IT should keep out of.

I could weasel my way out with some carefully chosen words about how IT enables but can not lead business change. But this isn't a problem to be glossed over. There's a real paradox here, and we need to tease out the underlying problems.

I think there are two dangers we need to avoid with our IT activities:

  • We need to avoid them being pointless. If IT doesn't support some changed human activity, then it has no value. Hence the need to link IT change to business change.
  • We need to avoid them being perilous. Combining major business change and major IT change is so difficult that the majority of such projects fail, by any measure.

These dangers are independent. Your IT can be both pointless and perilous at the same time. Indeed, as projects grow more perilous, any initial links between meaningful business change and IT break down. The IT becomes "strategic", an end in itself that has to be seen through for political reasons. Any value it could have brought is lost.

But because these problems are independent, it should be possible to make IT both valuable and safe. I think there are four main points: education, awareness, respect, and suspicion.

  • Education of both IT specialists and business managers on the basic nature of IT. IT automates the storage, transformation and communication of information, and it adds value because it does so cheaper, faster or more accurately than people. It isn't magic, it doesn't fix underlying business problems, and it doesn't prove you're important.
  • Awareness of the paradox and its dangers. IT change must be relevant and valuable and linked to business change, but not so closely entwined that the complexities of the IT change and of the business change amplify each other.
  • Respect of different roles. Business managers know how their businesses need to change; technologists understand how the technology works. Neither should dictate to the other, and both should meet the needs of the other. Both must focus on the core of the business need, without sinking it with unnecessary technical features or valueless wish lists.
  • Suspicion. IT is big business, and is a favourite political football. There are many commercial and political interests that drive IT for IT's sake, or which profit from the muddling of IT and business change.

It's a tough paradox, and this isn't easy. But following these four points will help navigate the narrow channel between pointless and perilous IT.

Next: Demand side management in IT

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