Business of ITControlling the Business Value Debate

Romi Mahajan

Are questions every truly innocent? In the world of business, I think not.

The questions asked and the answers given drive outcomes in equal measure. The reason is simple—questions don't emerge out of nothing; instead, they arise from a perspective that in many cases predefines the range of "acceptable" answers. The world of the IT professional is plagued by this phenomenon more than the worlds of other professionals, more so in times of economic duress. And the fundamentally misguided question that emerges over and over is, "does IT provide business value?"

Before I expound on this matter, I have my own "guilty" questions to ask. Do you like the treatment you get on a daily basis? Do you believe that IT has value? Do you believe that all of the people who ask the questions are themselves valuable?

So, how to deal with that question of your value?

My first piece of advice is to never answer that question. Answering it cedes the terms of debate to the questioner. The question is not innocent; it is teleological—it asks for the defense of a point that will be contradicted by foregone conclusion. As with a Greek tragedy, the outcome is clear.

My second piece of advice is to engage your interlocutor—but on your own terms. There are a few noteworthy ways of doing this.

The Reductio-Ad-Absurdum Approach When asked to justify the value of IT, immediately and confidently ask the asker what the value of good plumbing, elevators, or Post-it notes is. When he looks at you sheepishly, follow with a direct challenge to quantify the value of parking spaces and non-leaking roofs.

The Condescension Approach When asked the question, immediately respond with something akin to "I don't answer questions of suspect intent." Then proceed to speak in simple terms about the things IT enables. Don't ever legitimize the question; instead offer a speech about the virtues (not value) of IT.

The Inversion Approach When asked about the "business of IT," immediately discuss the "IT of business." In other words, invert the question by reflecting on the fundamental irony of the times in the world of IT, whereby instead of realizing that IT powers business, people ask how business can benefit from IT.

In a previous column ("Reinventing IT in Difficult Times"), I wrote that for modern industry IT is as vital as plumbing. I wrote further that IT organizations are in a difficult era. The neo-Taylorist push for efficiency ( Frederick Winslow Taylor was among the first efficiency experts), coupled with an unprecedented downturn in the economy, has delivered a one-two punch to already struggling organizations. The flight-towards-mediocrity ethos, driven by a semi-religious obsession with overhead reduction, has driven the IT organization—which never quite made it into the limelight it had been seeking—to its current nadir.

Part of the problem stems from our collective acceptance of the terms of debate laid down by others. All revolutions create their own ontology. IT professionals must do so as well.

Modern business is defined by dynamism, requiring the constant tracking of information, both concrete and inchoate. And dynamism requires the democratization of information to enable people to act in real time. It is technology that enables this process. While technology may not be sufficient, it is certainly necessary.

Questions therefore about IT and the IT organization are naïve at best and malicious at worst. Revolutionaries never accept the canards that define the status quo. I am asking each one of you to become one.

Romi Mahajan is Chief Marketing Officer of Ascentium Corporation. Before joining Ascentium, he spent 7+ years at Microsoft where his last role was as Director of Technical Audience and Platform Marketing. Romi is widely published in the areas of technology, politics, economics, and sociology.