Let me ask that a different way: If IT ran a restaurant, would it serve people the meals they ordered? Probably not. Instead, IT would look at their waistlines, ask for their most recent body mass index, and then serve them a small plate of salad (1 teaspoon low-fat dressing) and cottage cheese. In other words, if IT were in the food-service business, we wouldn't be restaurateurs -- we'd be dieticians.
Stewards manage someone else's resources for them. They don't protect them from themselves, which is why we're better off facing up to standard IT's hedgehog mind-set. Because, as the folks in AA long ago pointed out, the first step in addressing a problem is acknowledging that we have one.
The new IT mandate: Shared service and steward
For IT, becoming a bona fide steward would constitute significant progress. But here's the challenge: In the organizational context, IT is a shared service. As a shared service, IT supports other parts of the organization with technology and technological expertise. But as a steward, IT must maintain the value and integrity of a company resource. That sometimes conflicts with its shared-service role.
IT isn't alone here. For example, in many companies marketing is a shared service. It writes copy, creates layouts, builds Web pages, and so on for the company's various lines of business. In that sense it's a shared service, which could (if its staff were less enlightened than Advice Line's readers) consider the rest of the company to be its internal customers.
Marketing is more than just a shared service. It's also a steward of the company brand, one responsible for ensuring all messages delivered inside and outside the company are consistent with each other and with the company's image. As a shared service, marketing's job is give other departments the help they need. As a steward, it has authority to protect and develop a resource. These two views of marketing's responsibilities will often come into conflict -- whenever a line of business asks it to do something that would violate its stewardship responsibilities.
If the potential for conflict isn't clear, imagine you're responsible for Neiman Marcus's marketing department, and a store manager asked you to create advertising that says, "Everyday low prices."
There is no structural solution. No matter how hard you work to develop clear boundaries and interfaces, the conflict will remain.
The solution isn't structural. It also isn't procedural. It's something that's easy to say and often hard to do when real human beings are involved. The solution is for the two parties to work together in a positive, constructive way.
Whatever else next-generation IT becomes, it will, for the foreseeable future, be a shared service and steward. It is and will be responsible for providing other parts of the business the tools they need to improve or transform how they operate. It will also continue to be responsible for protecting the integrity of the company's IT resources.
These two responsibilities are just as certain to come into conflict as marketing's dual service/brand management responsibilities. The solution is the same, too.
Clear boundaries? A well-defined interface? Save those for your service-oriented architecture. Working with the rest of the business requires the exact opposite: overlapping boundaries and, instead of an "interface," trust and shared purpose. In a word: collaboration.
This story, "What IT can learn from marketing," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.