Idea to retire: A narrow focus on information technology

Information technology (IT) is the common name of many organizational units that build and manage the information systems that drive today’s business. It is a name, unfortunately, that does not convey the purpose of the unit and should be replaced by Information systems (IS) or decision systems.

Names matter. They send signals about purpose, role, identity, culture, and many other characteristics of the associated entity. When I speak, I am quickly identified, usually as an Australian, and then often linked with beer drinking and crocodile hunting. As a white male in his late 60s, I am assumed to be retired. While I enjoy some of the benefits of age, such as reduced fees on French trains, I have no intention of retiring for some years. Perhaps I should wear a label around my neck, “Australian, moderate wine-drinker, nonhunter, and full-time worker” so as not to confuse people.

A means to an end

Imagine the confusion that IT causes within an organization. It signals that the so identified unit is primarily about managing technology rather than managing the delivery and execution of systems to improve organizational performance. It suggests that technology is more important than people and procedures. It ignores the reality that an organization relies on people and systems to succeed and that technology enables them.

For over five decades, Peter Drucker urged executives to learn the difference between efficiency and effectiveness, and it is just as important to recognize the difference between means and ends. IT is a means, and it is a means that matters—a public agency’s IT fails, then citizen services effectively stop. A name change does not eliminate the need to manage IT, but it is misleading to identifying a unit’s purpose by its means rather than its ends. The marketing department does marketing, and the production department manufactures. The role of the misnamed IT department is to build and exploit information systems to improve organizational efficiency and effectiveness through high quality decisions.

Holistic tags expand thinking and provoke innovation by extending boundaries. For example, air traffic safety connotes a broader scope than air traffic control. Flyers want to reach their destination safely, and one of the means is air traffic control, but there are other means such as passenger screening and aircraft maintenance that contribute to the great goal of safety. Aligning names with what clients want continually reminds employees and customers of the ultimate objective.

As I tell my students, “you buy IT and you make a difference with IS.” There is no inherent competitive advantage in IT. Every organization can buy the same IT. Indeed, the vendors will be delighted to sell you all the IT you might ever want, and a bit more.

The real struggle is to identify information systems that can render superior services to citizens, build them on budget and time with required functionality, manage the change process for successful implementation, evolve the system to meet changing customer requirements, and gain full value from the investment by continually seeking means of exploiting the generated data to make better decisions. Buying IT and keeping it running is the easy part, or it should be. If it is not, then you really need an IT department. The hard part is generating a return on the investment by meeting the goals of the organization.

People, processes, and software

In the academic field, an information system is widely recognized as, “an integrated and cooperating set of people, processes, software, and information technologies to support individual, organizational, or social goals.” This interpretation places people and processes at the forefront. Writing an article is an information system in which the author (a person) crafts sentences, paragraphs, and documents (a process) to transmit information to potential readers. She used a word processor on a laptop, but she could just as easily have used different technology (pencil and paper) to create the same document. It would likely have taken longer, but the essence does not vary.

Even the best software and technology fails if people are not trained to use it and if the system does not reflect real-world conditions. People, procedures have to integrate to create a working system; IT can enable this integration, but it is not an outcome in itself. The purpose of the IT unit is not about information technology, as distinct from the marketing or production divisions.

To misquote Shakespeare, “an IT unit by another name is more descriptive.” So what are those other names? I have already suggested IS as a possibility, but let’s not be too quick to grab a familiar alternative.

The Business Systems Modernization project of the IRS is a good example of appropriate titling. It is about modernizing systems to improve services for taxpayers, providing timely data to employees and taxpayers, ensuring the latest tax laws are embedded in the system, and accounting for funds. The focus is on systems, taxpayers, and employers, and “Business Systems Modernization” leaves no doubt about the purpose. If the IRS had used “IT Modernization,” it would have implied an equipment upgrade was the prime focus, and this is clearly less value generating than systems modernization.

In contrast, the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) has a Digital Technology Unit run by a Digital Technology Unit that is ”harnessing the information revolution.” Shouldn’t the title imply that its purpose is to reduce the cost of delivering higher quality patient care? Why is it harnessing the information revolution? You harness a horse to go somewhere. It is the destination that matters, not preparing the horse. A more purposeful title might be ‘Patient Care Systems,’ because it captures the goal.

The ultimate goal

Decision making is the central activity of any organization. Many employees make decisions, from the person in the call center deciding on which routine response to use to deal with a customer’s request to the chief executive selecting among three expansion options. For a government agency, its success is determined by what services it decides to deliver, and how and when it decides to deliver them. In many countries, for over a century the postal service was one of the more successful government services. It started with the penny post in Great Britain in 1840: Rowland Hill designed a system for the daily delivery of letters to every home in the country for a penny per letter. Hill’s decisions were later emulated by many countries. Before designing the new system, Hill analyzed a “half hundred weight of material.” He collected data, converted it into information, and make design decisions.

Recent research reports that data-driven companies are more effective, presumably because they make better decisions. So, isn’t it about time that we created a unit whose mission is to improve organizational decision making? We need to kill proximate labels, such as information technology and information systems, and get to the ultimate, decision systems.

The purpose of the Decision Systems (DS) unit would be to “create and manage an integrated and cooperating set of people, processes, software, and information technologies to enhance the quality of organizational decision making.” DS should support decision making at all levels and for all stakeholders. It can, among many things, embed robust routine decisions in software, provide data to customers to help decide on a service that meets their needs, and enable citizens to participate in regulation creation decisions.

It’s time to kill IT and align the unit name and goals for an unequivocal clarification of purpose. Decisions make the organization, so why don’t we have a DS unit?