Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Tech Talk

Permit me to rant about the current fashion in the world of IT: the renaming of IT (Information Technology) as BT (Business Technology).

Thank you. This new name, BT, reflects the fact that technology's scope in a company is no longer limited to information. It now extends to all sorts of business-enabling infrastructure in both hard and soft flavors.

Now I'm all for fashionable names, but I still have to ask why this is important. Will changing the function's name to Business Technology magically divert the executive-in-charge away from technology (i.e. narrow) strategy and towards business (i.e. broad) strategy? That hope has been the holy grail for businesses for quite a long time. And the answer is a simple "no".

My skepticism comes from forty-plus years in the industry observing the following. When technology is a cost center, its leader's job always looks the same – thankless, overcommitted, and defensive. There is never enough time or money to meet the demand for technology services. And only the technology leader understands how to deliver them. This makes for a love/hate relationship. Neither the leader nor his/her executive colleagues are thrilled about it. And the technology leader has no time to focus on business strategy. He or she is consumed with cost reduction, and that is not a strategy, it's a tactic. A strategy would be "know what the customer wants to buy before the customer does".

Technology can implement that ambitious strategy. But only if a governance structure is in place that permits the technology function to prove its value to the company. I'm not talking about justifying yesterday's five million dollar technology investment. That would be cost containment, not proof of value. What I'm talking about is letting the technology function offer valuable solutions to the business, and letting the business decide what each solution is worth (to the business). For each proposed solution, the business should either "pay the man" or walk away from the deal. If no deal can be reached, the solution wasn't worth it.

For leaders feeling concern about delays, sunk costs, and loss of momentum, I don't blame you for having that emotion. But as thinking, it's not very helpful. That kind of thinking drives people to Las Vegas in droves, where they happily give away the rest of their money to make up for the little bit they lost at the beginning. The truth is that there are always better alternatives than the one you've chosen, even if it's already cost five million dollars to find out you don't like it.

Truth or not, I've yet to hear of a company that routinely walks away from internal technology solutions because their value doesn't justify the cost. Wouldn't that be refreshing! Instead we get a lot of "it costs too much and we won't pay that, so let's make it work for less". I've seen tens (and read about hundreds) of so-called solutions that were "made to work". The result is not pretty, and by the way, they usually don't.

Is it too late to roll back the name change? Probably. But there is still time to reflect. The desired transformation requires giving the technology function the freedom and incentive to propose and develop solutions that the business doesn't yet know it needs. That's what happens in the external marketplace, and that's why beneficial change is so rapid there. The great Henry Ford famously said that if he'd asked his customers what they wanted they would have said "a faster horse".

As a starting point, I would like to propose a two-step process for getting the ball rolling:
  1. Permit the technology function (BT or whatever) to make a profit by the rules of the internal financial calculus of the company
  2. Give the technology function the autonomy to allocate its resources (including time) as it sees fit
Scary, isn't it? I'm sure fine tuning is in order, as is the realization of these steps in practice will look different in every organization. But the core idea will remain: A company's technology area needs to be as forward-looking as sales and product development. Internal technology can make as much rain as those folks if it's given a chance.

From experience I can tell you that the discussion will always come back to cost. Old habits are hard to break. So, as an antidote, I offer this observation – money saved is capital, but technology properly designed and deployed is disruptive capital. Its value doesn't grow like a bank account, it grows like an explosion. So your company can keep the name BT, if it wants. But please make sure it lights the fuse on its technology.