Is IT to blame for poor digital performance?


Visionary leader develops compelling digital business strategy. IT function delivers pared-back technology solution, late and over-budget. Digital strategy under-delivers and is quietly shelved. IT takes the blame. Business leaders call for an overhaul of the IT function.

In many corporations, this story has been played out so often that it’s become an accepted truth, a seemingly immovable roadblock to the digital agenda. Yet this narrative no longer reflects reality. Business, rather than IT, is all too often the cause of poor digital performance.

Historically, IT worked at a lower ‘cycle rate’ than business. A new business concept could be specified in weeks, but design & build of the technology solution could take months or years. Now, the tables are turned. With today’s tools, technology solutions can be built in days or hours, but IT development teams are held back by slow or poor business decision-making.

In my work helping executives deliver digital strategies, I see increasingly a gap between what IT is capable of, and the value that business is driving from that capability. Six root causes seem to underlie this gap:

1: Design by committee. Now that developers can rework an IT solution in hours, monthly steering committee meetings seem anachronistic. In many organisations, a simple decision can take weeks, and can be highly resource intensive, particularly if there are multiple executives that need to be aligned.

2: Procrastination. Agile methodologies avoid long, vague and often ill-conceived requirements documents. But all-too-often business leaders use agile as an excuse to procrastinate over key decisions, leading to delayed and insufficiently iterated solutions.

3: Bottlenecked expertise. Digital is an emerging skill. The most digitally experienced executives will often have less than 5 years’ experience in the field – way less than their counterparts in other fields. And digital is growing rapidly in importance, so that experience has to stretch a long way. As a result, digitally experienced executives are often bottlenecked.

4: Customer avoidance. Most businesses understand the need for strong customer orientation, but few are prepared to put the customer right at the heart of the development process. This leads to rework and sub-standard solutions.

5. Misaligned incentives. Business project leaders are often incentivised to get a digital solution to market, rather than to meet strategic objectives (e.g., increased revenue). This can lead to inadequate solutions that don’t hit the mark with customers and won’t move the needle on business performance.

6: Lack of a digital strategy. Travelling in the wrong direction is worse that travelling slowly in the right one. The value from digital is not always where it appears to be. Too many organisations are in ‘fire then aim’ mode without having a clear strategy for how digital will create value for the business.

These business failings don’t excuse IT from continuing to raise the game. Most IT shops are in the thick of a comprehensive transformation journey that will include a shift to cloud, full adoption of agile, decentralisation and other changes. Some IT shops are genuinely underperforming. But businesses need to ensure their own glasshouses are in order before throwing stones at IT.

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