Free Jazz and IT
by Tony Kontzer
I found myself thinking about what it takes to run an IT organization as I sat watching free jazz legend Ornette Coleman blow away a crowd at San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall Sunday night. What does a 79-year-old avant-garde saxophonist have to do with business technology, you ask? A lot, if you stop to think about it. Hear me out.
Coleman's approach to music is fearless. Since he cemented his place in the pantheon of jazz legends with 1959's The Shape of Jazz to Come, Coleman has been one of the music world's great risk-takers, exposing listeners to a free-form approach to music that challenges them with a constant flow of surprises, from his unique instrumentations and impulsive improvisations, to his lurching, unpredictable melodic lines. Despite his genius, however, Coleman's music is not for everyone; many are uncertain what to do with it when they hear it, and most tend to recoil from the demands it places on them.
Coleman's approach contrasts with the structural order and conservatism of symphonic composition, the predictable catchiness of good ol' rock 'n roll, or the infectious danceability of a hip-hop groove. All of these musical genres are artistic and relevant in their own right, but those who choose to turn their backs on Coleman's free jazz--availing themselves only to music that "makes sense" to them--are clearly limiting themselves from reaping the full benefits of the human connection with music.
Likewise, truly effective IT isn't possible if it's built only on the safe "genres"; a truly effective IT operation must make use of a full array of strategies to achieve its full potential. For instance, think of the server farms, databases and information architecture components as the symphony, the structural foundation on which the moving parts of IT depend. The usability of applications can be compared to rock 'n roll--if users can't easily connect and engage with those apps, then the apps are destined to fail, just like a bad rock band. And a finely tuned network functions much like hip-hop, keeping things moving in a steady rhythm that greases the wheels for IT to happen.
All are essential IT building blocks. They're all necessary components of an IT operation, and they make it possible for a business to run. But without the risk-taking--the free jazz of IT, if you will--the rewards are minimal. Competitive advantage isn't achieved; envelopes aren't pushed; reputations aren't built.
The top IT executives are clear on this. They know that in order to rise above their peers, they have to take chances. They have to experiment with new technologies, encourage innovation, and try out unproven business models. They have to challenge users in order to coax the best from them, much the way Coleman challenges listeners in order to stretch their musical horizons. They can't ignore those more challenging IT pursuits, turning away much the way a frightened listener might after hearing Coleman's music.
The need to embrace risk is an age-old truism of business technology, but one that warrants an occasional reminder. Sometimes those reminders come in the unlikeliest of places, such as in the balcony of a symphony hall, as cascades of dissonant tones pour out of an aging man's saxophone and rain down upon an unsuspecting listener's ears.