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Should IT be a servant or a leader in business?

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From David Chassels: The interpretation gap must be closed. Business will never move to IT speak so, in order to bridge this gap, does IT need to be a servant of business or the leader in business some are saying they should be?

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  • IT must be a servant to business demands which are driven by positioning, competitiveness, profitability etc.,

    There does not need to be a them and us. The most successful projects are without doubt ones where Business and IT are mutually respectful and carry voices / positions at the same table.

    The inverse of that is, most failed projects are because either business has done a poor job of articulating their requirements, IT didn't want to listen or IT decided architecture was more important. Sometimes, being tactically strategic is the key. Being Agile with Business and IT in the same room, is the game changer for more success.

    My 2 cents.

  • Those aren't the only choices, and certainly not the right ones ... the best option is to be a _partner_, of the lines of business, of senior management, and, lest we forget, the users!

  • The best leaders are servants.... So both!

  • IT has historically relegated to the servant role, operating behind the scenes of the business. But now, IT is the business -- businesses' future is digital, and success depends on delivery of information. IT needs to lead the way. Again, leadership through service to the organization, but much more visible.

  • Actually, a big problem for a long time with IT is that we didn't have enough of a servant mentality: IT practitioners at all levels too often came off as arbitrary and aloof high priests of data and systems. So I'm hesitant to say that the servant approach is a bad one: reminding IT people that they have "internal customers" (a phrase that is for some reason reviled by a few pundits) is not a bad thing.

    That said, IT can't become mere order takers, asking no more than the equivalent of "do you want fries with that?" as they work on fulfilling the business needs of the enterprise. We need, particularly at the CIO/CTO level, to actively lead the way and help mold business needs to hit the elusive sweet spot between practical feasibility and idealism.

    My pithy slogan for this mix is "IT needs to know its place and still set the pace." In other words, it's not an either/or.

  • IT takes the lead in areas IT knows best. If there is a new technology that has the potential to move the organization forward, who else is going to recognize the opportunity and lead the charge?

    On the other hand, to the extent that IT has to act as a service provider to the other areas of the business, it does so.

    The same is true of nearly every part of the organization. Finance can act as a service provider, supplying expense tracking and budgeting tools to every unit. Or, as was the case with Southwest Airlines and its fuel-hedging operation, it can lead strategic initiatives that drive the business to places it otherwise couldn't have gone.

    Lead whenever necessary; collaborate whenever possible.

  • It was a recent discussion where frustration at the performance of IT in Government that the “servant” comment was made; an understandable one....! However the key issue is to put all on the same "wave length" and the interpretation gap must be closed. I think the BPM movement has started that move yet to some it just highlights the gap as IT are often excluded from early discussions with users.
    As vendors with tools that both put people first and remove need for coding gain attention I can see the gap closing and all become partners as some describe. The fact is all are "servants" to money and paying the mortgage! Let’s make it true collaboration all talking the same language of how to achieve business outcomes?

  • IT who? In many organizations dealing with services (e.g. banking & finance), much of the business is already embedded in IT. Some commodity banking services are “materialized” solely in an IT form. Other business offerings (such as complex financial instruments) are better understood and mastered by their IT implementers than by their business leads. That is why we start seeing a new category that I refer to as BT (Business Technology), which is an equal partner in the business management and is essential to its health.

  • Avigdor makes a good point. This view is shared by Forrester CEO George Colony; in an exchange with him some years ago he said “If we don’t get from IT to BT [Business Technology] we’re going to have more disasters like our present mortgage meltdown. Why? Because IT creates impenetrable systems that human beings can’t manage. BT is about human beings back in control.”
    Just sums up the consequences of the "gap" and the urgent need to bring simplicity to building custom solutions where developers and users collaborate to build exactly what is required?

  • Not the right choice. I think the only real option is for the two to be equal partners. As others have pointed out here, that makes it imperative that both sides of any partnership are able to communicate in a common language. Relatively few business people speak technobabble.

  • Now is the time for IT to step up and offer solutions to the business. Just like another part of the organization, IT has a responsibility to look for ways to improve service, profit and cost.

    Often this will mean partnering with the business, frequently it will mean just doing what the business asks but, increasingly and urgently, IT needs to take the leadership role and innovate. IT needs to step up and say what is possible and stop saying what is not.

    Every business has one or two applications that make the difference between being the market leader and the market follower. IT's job is to accelerate the cadence of innovation in those apps as fast as the business can accept the change and faster than the competition can respond.

    IT is the critical differentiator in business today and that is both an honor and a responsibility.

  • IT is a key cornerstone in business strategy today, so although IT should be mainly be looking at achieving business objectives more efficiently, oftentimes, IT will reveal new opportunities. so, mostly servant, sometimes leader!


  • I agree that Master and Servant as the only choices are improper. However, Business can not do without IT and can not do with IT.
    The root problem is that IT Goals and Priorities are not in accordance with Business Goals and Priorities. The Gap between Business and IT remains as wide as it was. It has nothing to do with BPM, SOA, ERP or other concepts. see my post Will Business and IT Aligned?

  • The question comes from an outdated organisational mindset however widespread it still is. It really depnds on how the executive level sees and understands IT. Mostly they still see it as coat to be controlled and do not understand the potential. IT by itself has little opportunity to be more than the executive wants to see.

    Leadership is defining the right strategy and that is about creating potential. IT has the most powerful potential as a people enabler but very few executives want to invest upfront in that so IT is stuck in the ROI mud. If an IT project doesn"t cut costs somewhere, forget it.

    Understanding IT means to understand and empower people, employees and customers alike. IT is about potential and not efficiency. Cutting costs blindly is not increasing efficiency as is assumed. IT departments are service departments today and no more. Most IT management is cynical about new solutions and opportunities and want to protect the starus quo that gives them some powermdue to the current complexity of systems. I hardly ever se IT being given the opportunity to innovate and if they often fail to take the leap that is necessary.

    Executives have jumped at short-sighted panaceas such as outsourcing and killed their IT agility. IT doesn' t dare to innovate beyond the analyst ratings, which are backward perspectives on the marketplace and not forward looking. Is anyone surprised about the sorry state of affairs?

    IT is what the executive makes it and not what it choses to be ... Most executives do not understand technology and its potential!

  • Interesting debate and enjoy many comprehensive comments, it also reminds me of a few high quality IT leadership debates in CIO forums:

    1. Is IT an order taker or rule co-maker:
    At higher level of maturity, IT is key differentiator, rule co-maker, even business driver. As the gap between IT and the business narrows, CIOs will be seen as business, not technology leaders. Here, IT organizations must deliver business transformation: http://futureofcio.blogspot.com/2013/01/is-it-order-taker-or-rule-maker.html

    2. Is IT a cost center or Value creator?

    Empowerment and influence comes with trust first. The CIO must be a transformational leader that not only manages the IT group, but also CIO must work to integrate and lead the integration (not merely alignment) of IT to business processes and the strategic value proposition.

    3. IT Change Name or Shift the Mindset

    Changing a name rarely changes an organization or how it is perceived by its customers. IT should both reboot mindset and retool management discipline, more proactively anticipate business value delivery through knowledge of information technology, also become business’s strategic partner

    As this is BPM forum, no matter where BPM team sits, the key trend is: information will touch all key processes in digital era today, provide birdview of business capabilities in order for business to compete for the future.


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