For IT, it's all about processeses

Anticipation and foresight are critical to IT leadership success. But don't just take my word for it.

When studio Dreamworks SKG was starting up, the CIO told me that the No. 1 responsibility of CIOs in his industry was to "anticipate problems before the business encountered them -- to see the wall before the business slammed into it."

The CEO of a West Coast multinational, when asked what he thought the role of the CIO was, replied, "To think of what I think of before I think it, and have it ready to go when I think of it."

But if IT leaders are going to anticipate the way they're expected to, they are going to need a better handle on processes.

At the IT Leadership Academy, we are about a third of the way into a yearlong examination of what is known, what can be known and what must be known about critical business processes in the enterprise. Much of the attention in IT these days seems to be directed at four change vectors: the cloud , mobility , business analytics and social media. But all that good work could be nullified by underperformance in the unsexy but critically important area of process knowledge.

We live in a complex world. Regulators, investors and customers presume that management teams operate with full knowledge of key processes in the enterprise. But several recent events -- the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout and the recall of eggs in the wake of the salmonella scare, plus numerous other recalls -- suggest that we often don't know what is actually going on.

Our early research data suggests that the full capture and analysis of process knowledge is more the exception than the rule. How can this be?

For decades, we have been automating business processes. Then, in the '90s, we re-engineered the processes we had automated. During the first decade of this millennium, we spent trillions of dollars on ERP, customer relationship management, supply chain and knowledge management systems. And yet, when asked to identify their enterprises' critical processes and evaluate how they're performing, the vast majority of executives couldn't say.

The age of process re-engineering was launched when MIT computer science professor Michael Hammer lobbed a shot across the bow of our industry in his Harvard Business Review article "Don't Automate, Obliterate" (July-August 1990). Every consulting firm created a practice around documenting processes, and for a time, processes were the high ground of IT. Then, somehow, they quietly faded from IT consciousness.

The preliminary interviews I have conducted indicate that those of us in IT know that we're not as aware of what's actually happening in key processes as we should be. CIOs rightly perceive that they would put their careers at risk if they shed light on the fact that their IT shops are ignorant of their enterprises' processes. Meanwhile, the business executives who oversee key processes believe that they understand how things work, but often their understanding is far removed from how things actually work. That gap is fueling a process bomb that is dangerously close to exploding.

So in addition to all our other responsibilities, IT will have to defuse that process knowledge ignorance bomb. Be careful, and move cautiously.

I welcome readers' thoughts on the state of process knowledge capture, analysis and action in their enterprises and industries.

Thornton A. May is the author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics and executive director of the IT Leadership Academy at Florida State College at Jacksonville. You can contact him at thorntonamay@aol.com .

Read more about management and careers in Computerworld's Management and Careers Topic Center.

This story, "For IT, it's all about processeses" was originally published by Computerworld.

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