As someone once said, those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat the seventh grade. To keep us all out of middle school, consider the chart below, which superimposes a brief economic history of the United States (based on the unemployment rate as provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and IT's overall level of control over corporate information technology:
The chart tells the story: When IT lost control of information technology as PCs empowered individual users, the U.S. economy expanded; when we regained control, the economy contracted. The same thing happened when someone who almost always wasn't in IT put just about every company in the country on the Web, along with lots of new companies that kept their Web development teams carefully separate from IT -- and when IT regained control of Web development.
Correlation doesn't, of course, prove causation, but the lack of linkage between IT keeping tight control and economic success isn't the best news for those in our profession who spend most of their time locking down plans and details.
Control is about playing it safe -- preventing the unexpected, continuing to do only what we know, avoiding risk instead of managing it, coloring inside the lines instead of asking for a blank sheet of paper. The problem is, many of the risks you avoid are also opportunities you fail to pursue. You also end up becoming a member of the Value Prevention Society.
Three inescapable trends that have changed the IT landscape
The IT landscape has changed in three fundamental ways that together are making our habit of control obsolete:
* A vast expansion of IT's scope.
* A radical increase in business-user sophistication.
* The nascent dominance of single-actor business processes.
It's the Yogi Berra theory of roads, and IT is facing it right now: We're at a fork and we have to take it. One path ignores these changes and follows IT's tradition of controlling the use of information technology. The other, better choice redefines IT's role, turning us into stewards who support everyone's ability to more effectively exploit information technology's potential.
Let's explore the three trends that have brought us to this fork (and seem to be poking us with it).
Vast IT scope expansion. Take a moment to track IT's sphere of responsibility over time:
* 1960s and early '70s. Core accounting functions: general ledger, accounts payable, billing/accounts receivable, and payroll.
* Mid-'70s through mid-'80s. All of the above, plus full or partial automation of core nonaccounting processes such as inventory management, purchasing/supply chain, and order entry.