Disrupt or die? Beware the siren calls of tech consultants

Every company should intentionally and actively design and execute its tech strategies, instead of jumping on the latest consultant fad

Disrupt or die? Beware the siren calls of tech consultants
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The dot-com "new economy" thinking is back -- again. Everything you know and do is wrong and must be disrupted, transformed, and greenfielded. The past belongs to the dinosaurs, and only the IT leaders who see the future will be around to live it. 

Perhaps now that the Great Recession is firmly in the rearview mirror, but without heady growth replacing it, that cultish thinking has the right environment to thrive again -- at risk of wasting millions of dollars and untold hours of corporate efforts. The mini-messiahs of tech have made digital transformation their new religion, though you still see strains of older cults, such as around social business and citizen developers, preaching to IT and business leaders.

Here is a smattering of the kinds of broad, hollow comments from such techno-preachers:

  • "Being a truly native digital business requires a complete rethinking of what's possible."
  • "Digital transformation is the necessary response to changing consumer and market behaviors."
  • "We need to rethink everything, including the business models that have driven success in the past."
  • "The New CIO has a real chance to grab the reins and lead toward a digital business  -- tar pit for the rest."
  • "I've concluded that IT can no longer deliver tech change in sufficient scale ... nor should it."
  • "Communities for learning are changing everything about how we prepare for the future."
  • "If they are not a community-oriented company ... they're not going to win."
  • "Often the CIO is where old IT goes to die. New and exciting tech projects go to the CDO and CMO."

If you've been around IT for a decade or more, you've heard such statements before from consultants, vendors, and media pundits. Many of the core technologies cited -- analytics, mobile, and cloud, particularly -- have also been around for years, though they've all progressed and continue to do so. There's nothing fundamentally new today being preached, only the usual advances that become the examples to inspire action or fear (and gain big speaking and consulting fees).

Don't get me wrong: Inspiring tech and business leaders to do better is a good thing. Where it goes wrong is when the inspiration stays at the naive, vapid level so common today. Tossing everything you have and have done is stupid beyond belief -- not to mention impractical and even impossible. It's also dangerous. Ask the dot-com startups from the late 1990s who decided all of humanity's business history didn't apply to them. They were wrong, and millions of people got hurt as a result.

Digital transformation is real -- and it's been real for at least three decades. It's not a new phenomenon, as the techno-preachers would have you believe. The reality is that it happens gradually and in waves, as new technologies find a business process or other functional toehold and expand from there. As parts of a business process go digital, adjacent areas naturally become the next focus -- because those boundary zones are where you'll find friction between digital and analog, and thus where tech innovators focus next.

IT and business leaders alike should always look forward to what can be done better with new technology, new processes, and enlightened management. But they also have real companies, people, systems, and processes in place that need to keep going to pay the bills. Rebuilding the engine while the car hurtles down the highway may be a cliché, but it's a truth, too. That's hard to do, and by its nature is done gradually. The pace may change, but not the incremental nature of the change. That truth tends to get lost in the "change or die" preachers.

It's true that IT organizations tend to be conservative -- they should be, given that what they produce and manage has to work.

But some are too conservative, actively resisting change. For them, a kick in the pants can be useful.

IT's resistance to change and its difficulties with being part of the business are common themes -- and have been for decades. We've seen what happens when IT gets too conservative or becomes divorced from the business: departmental computing, shadow IT, consumerization of IT, and more recently the notion that marketing departments and vague new roles such as chief digital officer would take over the innovation and leave IT to managing email, PCs, ERP, and networks.

The tension between business and IT is the real issue companies should focus on. That is, on the pace of change, who steers and directs that change, and what changes to prioritize. It's called management, and just as the CIO has long wanted a seat at the executive table, the business functions need a seat at the technology table.

The how is up to each company -- and if there's one area where I fully agree with the techno-preachers is that every company should be intentional and active on designing and executing its strategies. To quote management guru Peter Drucker, "Strategy is a commodity, execution is an art."

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