IT leaders: pitchers or catchers?

In pro baseball, the catcher signals the pitcher how to throw the ball. Similarly, IT needs to inspire lines of business to make the right choices, or they will be left to deal with the curveballs sent their way.

Daisuke Matsuzaka
Daisuke Matsuzaka
Credit: Keith Allison - CC BY-SA 2.0

As the saying goes, "Every company is an IT company, every person is a technology person." This adage is becoming more relevant than ever in today's digitalized world, with organizations of all sizes looking for new ways to compete and grow by changing or pivoting their business models.

Research firm Gartner says that by 2017, more than 50 percent of technology spending will happen outside of the IT organization. Lines of business have always benefited from a discretionary IT budget that was directly proportional to the power of their leader, but until the advent of SaaS this budget remained low compared to the overall IT spend. Salesforce.com's "No Software" approach and the subsequent surge in Software-as-a-Service business applications has seen the advent of a new era in non-IT-driven IT investments. Many an IT leader has had to cope with the challenging task of regaining control of applications that were selected and deployed without his involvement, and sometimes without his knowledge.

Today, SaaS is no longer limited to business applications. Even technologies that until recently remained the prerogative of IT, are shifting toward business users. Integration is a perfect example: Gartner inventories today over 30 Integration Platform-as-a-Service (iPaaS) vendors, and even the highly specialized API world is getting a step closer to business users with self-service API Platform-as-a-Service. (Disclosure: I am a former employee and a shareholder of Talend, an integration vendor which has announced it will launch an iPaaS product in 2015, and I am an advisor to Restlet, provider of an API PaaS).

In this world where IT is loosing control of IT, it is easy for IT leaders to remain passive and wait until they get thrown projects at. After all, there is never enough budget to build everything they are asked to do, so why seek additional projects? But in the long run, once the excitement fades, as business leaders get replaced, IT will inevitably be asked to assume the choices that were made without them. The challenge for IT is thus to never lose this control, to remain involved in the key technology decisions, or at the minimum to help stir them in the right direction.

I have written before about sports and how they are driven by digitalization. But sports concepts also drive this digital transformation. Take baseball: who decides how the ball is going to be thrown, the pitcher -- or the catcher? For the casual observer, the pitcher is in control, and if he throws a curveball, the catcher will have to figure out how to catch it. And indeed this is what happens when the catcher remains passive, just squatting and waiting for the pitch. This is also what happens when IT is not involved -- until the line of business decides to throw ownership of SaaS applications or iPaaS integration jobs toward IT.

But if you observe more carefully a baseball game, pro catchers actually signal to their pitcher, through an elaborate finger-position code, the type of pitch to throw. In IT, this translates by IT gently nudging the business towards the right choices -- right for the business, and right for IT.

Of course, some pitchers don't always obey the hand signals from the catcher, because "they know better." Similarly, not all business leaders will follow the advice from IT on their technology choices, because "they own the budget." And IT will be left to deal with an unexpected curve ball at some point.

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