When does running IT as a business make sense?

Running IT as a business rarely makes sense. Sometimes, though, it's better than the alternatives available to a CIO

Dear Bob ...

Our CIO doesn't seem to agree with you. His mantra is that we in IT are running a business, and we should think of the rest of the company as our internal customers. He has instituted a system of charge-backs for our services as well ... very much the situation you advise against in "Keep the Joint Running."

[ Bob Lewis thinks right now is a good time to reorganize IT and has suggestions for how to approach the task | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

As you predicted in the book, relationships are becoming increasingly strained, the silo walls are getting higher, and those of us with friends elsewhere in the company are hearing more and more complaints about how bureaucratic we're becoming. The company was already very political. It's getting worse.

Any advice on how to enlighten our CIO?

- Grasshopper

Dear Grasshopper ...

Before trying to enlighten your CIO, figure out if he's dealing with a situation where running IT as a business is the least of the available evils.

It's like this: I strongly disagree with the model. Among its flaws is to substitute charge-backs for business leadership as a governance mechanism for deciding how to direct the company's investments in information technology.

You provided the key when you described the company as "already very political." This is a common symptom of poor business leadership: Without a clear sense of direction, shared priorities, and a habit of collaboration as a precondition for success, businesses easily devolve into political quagmires.

If business leadership is poor, the CIO might have decided that charge-backs and all the other paraphernalia of "running IT as a business" are better than having to adjudicate arguments over whose pet project gets staffed and funded and whose doesn't.

And your CIO might very well be right.

If that is, in fact, the situation, though, I wouldn't plan on your employer's staying power as a business. In strong economies, companies with poor business leadership can survive by accident. Right now? Many well-led companies are barely surviving. Companies without leadership will do worse than that.

- Bob