What is IT Transformation, Really?


At one point or another, all information technology watchers get a little sick of buzzwords. Maybe not just a little--after all, there are way too many to go around, so maybe the sickness is more like a disease.

I spoke last week about the issue with Dan Roberts, president of Ouelette & Associates, a Bedford, NH-based consulting firm focusing on IT transformation and change management. He and his colleagues authored Leading IT Transformation: The Roadmap for Success, released by Kendall Hunt Professional in September.

Check out the title again, and you'll see one gigantic IT buzzword. Ask 10 CIOs or IT executives what "transformation" really means, and you're bound to get 10 different answers. Does transforming your corporate IT operation mean morphing from a utility/cost center to a value creator? Reshaping your architecture or application mix? Or, perhaps, moving from a centralized model to a decentralized one, or vice versa?

I've heard IT leaders say "yes" to all of the above, all while using the same term--"transformation"--to describe the change.

Part of the problem there, Roberts says, is IT's inability to clearly communicate their goals and vision. "Even when they have a good transformation plan, the communication of that is done so poorly that we don't get people on board or get people driving it across all levels," he says.

Roberts looks at IT transformation as a shift from being reactive, order-taker cultures to driving business growth and improvement. A key part of that, he says, is positioning your IT shop as the "internal consultant of choice," versus whatever consulting/advisory services are out there in the marketplace.

But it's easier said than done. On top of the communication issue, there's another problem that Roberts, among others, have emphasized to me lately: "CIOs and IT leaders easily revert to their technical comfort zone," Roberts says. "You have to think about it as looking from the outside in. People in IT work their tails off trying to hit the bulls-eye on customer value, business value, and being more strategic. They're hitting the bulls-eye every time, but it's their bulls-eye, not their clients' bulls-eye."

Roberts and his crew have put together a nice roadmap for actually figuring out what type of transformation will work for your IT shop and, more importantly, how to make it happen. It's worth checking out.

So tell us, IT execs: what's your take on IT transformation? Do you feel you have a problem explaining your strategy for change? Or do business executives simply turn a deaf ear? We'd like to hear your thoughts.


13 Comments for "What is IT Transformation, Really?"

  • Kris Molitor January 13, 2009 2:14 pm

    Without doubt, the involvement in IT in the overall business process of any organization, including the manufacturing process, is a relatively new idea. I appreciated Alex's comment about the last 1/3 of a project -- the unbudgeted portion of the project -- as 1/3 business transformation. I prefer the terms used throughout these posts such as solution, resolution, even the word simply "change," as it is a more truthful expression of what needs to happen. Wherever the word transformation began to evolve as a different buzzword in the IT world -- I find it makes promises that I doubt it can truly deliver. It may, however, have the advantage of making a point that that 4th third of the project definitely has costs associated with it and that without that 4th third the project has no hopes of meeting the requirements for which it was proposed. But I may be oversimplifying this.

  • Tony December 31, 2008 6:35 am

    From Webster: transform = 1 a: to change in composition or structure; b: to change the outward form or appearance of; c: to change in character or condition : convert. So what does that really mean? Ask 20 CEOs and you'll get 20 answers. It has nothing to do with some so-called consultant saying IT doesn't know or can't verbalize it -- it has to do with the fact that it means different things to different people. Ask yourself this question: if CEOs were so smart, how come so many of them are getting burned by the bad economy right now? Many CEOs are good at what they do, which is run their particular business. Not all businesses are making or selling technology; thus they have CIOs and other have help running the business. They have CFOs, marketing teams, sales teams, back office support teams and so on. If they want financial information, they go to a CFO and heed that advice, most times. So why is it that many CEOs don't heed the advice of CIOs? Some say they don't know or understand the business. Well, in my short 35 years, CFOs don't know their businesses any better (didn't mean to pick on CFOs). A large group of consultants and some of the media have convinced CEOs that IT is stupid. Look at all the books that proclaim how IT is really bad, wrong or just useless. If that's true, I would like to see all these businesses and consultants turn off all the technology in their company for just one week. The problem is largely that we as humans change constantly. Although most people will tell you they hate change, they really thrive on it. Just think if everything stayed the same all the time...pretty dull! Since change is constant and someone wants technology to address that change, you have created a very complex set of rules to follow. Which then creates a complex solution. Use technology as a tool. It's not a solution to every problem. Here is my favorite example. I need to dig a hole, so I go to the store and buy a shovel. I dig my hole and I am happy. The next day, I need to change the flat tire on the car. I get out my shovel and get mad after 3-4 hours of trying to change it with the shovel. I go to the store and give them a piece of my mind that the shovel didn't help me change my tire. The person at the store says, well, of course, sir, you cannot change a tire with that you need a tire iron. I get mad and storm out because I think the tool I bought is defective. Now the maker of the shovel didn't say specifically that the shovel would not change tires -- I just thought it would. So is it IT's fault that the tool built to the business needs and requirements won't do everything, especially those things not ask for? You decide. So as my grandfather once said, you are either part of the problem or the solution. Which one are you?

  • jonmca December 30, 2008 2:15 pm

    I find it�™s useful to give business leaders a way of looking at the mission of IT that reflects and balances both day-to-day and transformative roles. I like to say that the mission of IT is "RSVP": R = Reliability -- Make sure the technology works. S = Security -- Protect systems and data (from accidents and malicious intent). V = Value Added -- Discover and deploy technology that adds value compared to existing systems and competition (looking outside the organization for new approaches is essential). P = Productivity �" Introduce technology that increases productivity (looking inside and understanding the organization's functioning is essential). I tell them that that Reliability and Security roles apply to all IT organizations, but Value Added and Productivity roles for IT depend on each organization�™s unique mission, customers, products, suppliers, channels, regulations, structure, maturity, etc. I feel that IT's impact on Value Added and Productivity areas requires detailed business knowledge, partnering with business leaders, interpersonal and political skill and organizational support and funding. These roles for IT also produce the most significant benefits to organizations.

  • Cary King December 30, 2008 11:17 am

    It seems to me that the fundamental shift that IT must make is from a pure producer role to a stewardship role. In this stewardship role IT would serve as the expert managers of IT services and advisors to management. Building a transparent financial structure where all the IT services and sub-services are defined, each running "like a business," can be done within a year. The IT demand management organization -- the customer-facing or "sales" role within IT -- can then work with customer businesses to develop reasoned make/buy decisions for sub-services. IT would produce what it can economically and coordinate buying sub-services from others where economical. In essence, IT would act as prime contractor and sub-contractor where economical. The customers can "buy" the resultant high-level services from the IT department knowing that they're getting a good price for the quality delivered. The customers can "buy" what they can afford -- knowing the price of the services. IT moves away from the fixed-price, unlimited-demand model that it finds itself in today.

  • Pete DeLisi December 30, 2008 10:47 am

    Twenty years ago we put together a consulting practice to "transform" IT organizations. After a year of trying to sell the concept, we learned that IT organizations don't want to be "transformed." Instead, they would love to be more effective, add more value to the business, retain and recruit the best people, be respected in the corporation, etc. It's kind of like going to a "shrink" who says that you need to be transformed. The first thing you would do is to find the door out of there.

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