I meet with a lot of companies and still the two most-asked questions I hear are: “What is the value of IT?” and “How come my IT group can’t offer strategic value?” The nature of these questions can almost always be traced back to the perspective that IT is an Infrastructure Provider (equipment, network and applications).

The first question usually comes from an organization’s underlying desire to keep costs as low as possible. The second question usually arises when the IT group sees themselves as merely the infrastructure providers while company leadership looks to them for more.

The beginnings of IT

Historically, IT was solely focused on infrastructure. In the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, the department was commonly called Data Processing and reported to the CFO. The mission was to automate accounting processes to reduce accounting costs. The focus on automation for cost reduction remained a primary focus into the late ‘90’s and it remains an important mission of IT today.

However, with the emergence of the Internet, a clear awakening occurred with the recognition that technology can leapfrog competitors and introduce new businesses. A strong strategic IT leader was offered a seat at the table and is now valued equally alongside other company leadership.

(Mis)understanding the role of IT

While standard business functions have been around for centuries, accounting, payroll, operations, etc., IT is new, barely 50 years (if you’re being generous). We’re barely into the second generation of business leaders with this function. Is it any wonder many companies don’t really know what do with or what to get from Information Technology? Developing the role of IT has also suffered from constantly changing leadership due to the nature of how IT staff mature in their career (but that’s for a future post).

So how do we blend the ever growing need for IT’s skills with an organization’s need for technology direction and leadership? Information Technology needs to retain its job of optimizing systems and processes in the most cost effective and efficient manner. At the same time, the department also has the job of evaluating and advocating for how technology can be used to transform the business so that it survives and thrives into the future. I believe the Information Technology department is responsible for change: promoting it, accessing it and implementing it. If not IT, then who?

This does not restrict innovation to IT but it does place responsibility for change on the entity that is best equipped to carry it forward.

It’s time to call a spade a spade and expect and hold accountable IT organizations for this mandate. In order to be successful, IT leadership has to thoroughly know and understand the business. Only then can they accurately discuss what changes will be useful. The department tasked with changing your organization should have a seat at the leadership table.