Does IT have a strategic stake in business?

Technologists debate whether IT's role is strategic or tactical when it comes to shaping and advancing the goals of the business

Inspired by the first presidential debate where McCain and Obama disagreed whether the military surge in Iraq was a strategy or a tactic, I spoke to two technologists whose opinions I respect to find out what is strategic and what is tactical when it comes to IT.

Mathew Porta, vice president and partner for global technology strategy at IBM Global Services, and Josh Greenbaum, principal at Enterprise Applications Consulting, were kind enough to shed light on the differences.

[ For more insights on IT management, see "Seven things IT should be doing (but isn't)" and "20 more IT mistakes to avoid" ]

As far as Porta is concerned, the idea that an enterprise can develop its business strategy without IT and then expect IT to execute it is just too simplistic these days.

"For many industries, technology informs the art of the possible," Porta tells me.

The possible being in this case your vision or goal for your company.

Greenbaum, however, disagrees. In fact, he goes so far as to call Porta's strategic view of IT "idealistic." Greenbaum himself takes a far more tactical approach, explaining that companies do indeed decide on their business goals first and then figure out how IT should go about maximizing those goals.

"It's not a question of, 'Can we take that hill?' We have to take the hill," Greenbaum says. "We don't have a choice."

According to Greenbaum, taking the hill is the strategy, and it is IT's job to figure out how to do it. That's where tactics come in.

IT's role: The fundamental difference But Porta believes that IT must be used to help a company figure out what its vision should be in the first place. Whether a company wants to be a media company or a service company, for example, IT must be part of that decision-making process. In other words, do we have a realistic strategy?

Once informed by IT, there needs to be a road map of how to get there, with tactics filling in the steps along the way.

Greenbaum, however, says this is not how business works. As Greenbaum sees it, General Motors says, We are going to be a surviving auto manufacturer. It is not IT's job -- or the CIO's job, practically speaking -- to say, No, you can't do that.

This is the fundamental difference between the two points of view.

And while I'm not sure there is one right answer, I have a gut feeling that, in the case of GM, for example, it might have to be the CIO who delivers the bad news.

"You know what, we're not going to be one of the surviving auto manufacturers," the CIO might say, adding, "Maybe we ought to sell before anyone realizes it."

Porta sees the CIO in that kind of role -- a business leader rather than an IT manager; a value creator rather than a cost controller; an innovator rather than an operator.

Greenbaum understands the differences.

Yes, if the CIO can walk into the board room and say, "We can do what Amazon is doing, and let me show you how we can with your investment," it would be great.

"IBM would love to have the voice of the CIO weighed more carefully at the decision-making point, but that is not the reality," Greenbaum says.

More typically, the CIO is called into the boardroom when things go south and the CIO has to explain why.

But doesn't that tell us something? If IT and the CIO are going to be blamed, shouldn't their advice be sought before that happens?

Competitive advantage lends strategic prominence to IT Greenbaum concedes that for certain businesses, IT functionality is part of the competitive differentiator. At, say, Netflix, Amazon, or Google, IT is most certainly part of the strategy-making process. For the most part, however, this is not the case.

"In the CPG [consumer packaged goods] industry or luxury goods, it is brand, not technology, that is the competitive advantage," Greenbaum says. "It is defined by your PR and marketing activities."

Greenbaum says that Bose, for example, which many consumers may think of as a technology company, is really just a brand leader and that it distinguishes itself from its competition by marketing.

"Look inside the box," Greenbaum says. "It has the same $12.98 worth of parts as its competitors."

I can't vouch for Greenbaum's expertise in the field of consumer electronics, but I take his point.

If the strategy is to open your company to new markets overseas, for example, but your sales force in a particular underdeveloped country doesn't have laptops to use, it is IT's job to say, "We can help the sales force do what it needs to do over cell phones." If IT wasn't asked to be part of the vision-making process, the company might have had to change its strategy. I think that's what Porta means by technology informing the vision.

On this they agree: Strategy or tactic, IT is there to maximize business goals.

By the way, I still can't figure out if the surge is a strategy or a tactic.