CIO DNA

September 2012 

DNA abstract

This article arises from the discussion on the BCS Elite group on LinkedIn ‘Just how responsible is IT for the financial troubles the world finds itself in?’

Kenneth and Will Hopper’s book1 “The Puritan Gift: Triumph, Collapse and Revival of an American Dream” is an entertaining and thought provoking read that places the ills of global financial chaos squarely at the door of ‘(so-called) Experts’, modern followers of Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915).

Taylor was the world’s first management consultant. As inventor of scientific management, to Taylor an organisation was a collection of numbers with its management reducing to number crunching; to the neo-Taylorist ‘(so-called) expert’ management is a standalone profession separate from its domain of application.

The Hoppers level the unflattering, but not unjustified, criticism of the ‘(so-called) expert’ as living in a world of ‘semi-fantasy, making life-and-death decisions about organisations that [are seen] only through a statistical glass darkly.’2

In contrast, the Hoppers’ eponymous puritan is the ‘generalist manager,’ endowed with good interpersonal skills and domain knowledge gained by spending a lifetime in an organisation or industry, or by working closely with people who have done so. The Hoppers trace the generalist manager from the European puritan forebears that founded modern America, and American growth and prosperity.

The Hoppers, and other modern critics, ascribe the rise of the Taylorist to Business Schools, their ‘Temples of the Cult of the (so-called) expert’. Their critique is that MBAs place insufficient emphasis on understanding the domain of application in the development of management skills, and on ethics and on other social considerations, so as to be detached from reality.

Although not a criticism that can be levelled at all business schools (for instance, Sloan’s students have, on average, five years of full-time management relevant experience3 before joining their MBA), it’s true that many, if not most, new MBA graduates will enter their new management career with little more to trust than their studies.

It’s notable that the rise of Hoppers’ ‘(so-called) expert’ coincides with the rise of the expert information system, including all manner of decision support tools for reporting, business intelligence and monitoring through dashboards and many others. Is it just coincidence? Probably not: without IT, management is crazy hard; with IT, the craziness remains, but it can appear easy.

Imagine how, with little else to rely on early in their career, the easy lure of number crunching computers that tame organisational statistics displace the hard-won people skills and domain knowledge of the generalist manager, making ‘scientific’ management the default mode of the inexperienced manager. With IT, most any manager could became the god of the organisation.

However, the god was false. Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Black Swan4 is as complimentary about experts as are the Hoppers, saying that ‘certain professionals, while believing they are experts, are in fact not. [...They’re only] much better [...] at smoking you with complicated mathematical models.’

Now, whereas managers have always had sophisticated thought tools to help them manage, Taleb’s mathematical complexity is possible only when backed by computation. Taleb lays much of the vulnerability of banks and trading firms at the door of their defective models, models made possible by Computing and accepted in haste as genuine.

The most cursory of scans reveals how computation-dependent is business and finance, all the way from the lowly desktop PC that pushes emails around an organisation to the complex derivatives that have leveraged a shrinking real-asset basis to generate great wealth for the few.

The true impact of that dependence is revealed only with the recent crash: IT has been and is at the centre of the radical transformation of the organisation into one with global impact. The problems of scaling the organisation, slow communication and poor distributed information management, have been overcome by IT and the internet leading to removal of all terrestrial limits to growth.

Banks, for instance, have grown to be global organisations mixing dour retail business with risky pleasure in the world’s financial markets, with no safety net to protect the exposed governments and tax payers below. With IT and the internet, banks have become ‘too big to fail.’

By removing the limits of growth, IT is implicated in the moral hazard of being too big to fail. The organisational pull for IT outdid IT leadership’s ability to say ‘no!’.

It can, therefore, be argued that the failure of IT leaders to stand up and take responsibility for guiding their organisation’s use of information has been a key factor in recent high-profile failures; by permitting the creation and use of false metrics and measures they have allowed and enabled other leaders in the business to, often wilfully, delude themselves by creating their own idea of truth and consequently scientifically mismanaging their businesses into catastrophe.

After the crash, what can be learned? Today’s three key enablers of the organisation are finance, talent and information. Should IT aspire to the established position of CIO within business as a board level appointment, sitting alongside the HR Director and CFO? To do so, rather than just a compliant ‘yes!’, on seeing poor information use we must expect from our confident CIO the same ‘no!’ as that the CFO gives when they see bad finance.

Neither is confidence in that ability easily learned nor is trust easily gained. For our aspiration to become reality, therefore, we must understand the metaphorical DNA of the few CIOs that currently occupy that responsible position and are trusted when they say 'no!'.

CIO DNA includes background and action in support of their organisation, understanding of their discipline and environment, as well as hopes and aspirations, as each is a factor in their DNA’s fitness-for-purpose. Only in this way we can be certain of IT, its scope and its influence within the organisation and society, so becoming able to reflect it in our work with IT’s future leaders.

Acknowledgements

This article arises from the discussion on ELITE on LinkedIn ‘Just how responsible is IT for the financial troubles the world finds itself in?’ started by the first author.

Contributors to the debate (and so this article) include: IbukunAdebayo, Bob Barnes, Colin Beveridge, Stephen Biddlecombe, Steve Burrows, Charles Chang, David Flint, Jon Hall, Simon Kidd, Anil Majithia, Kurt Roosen, Chris Sluman, and James Wood. Other views were expressed in the discussion, but aren’t voiced in this article.

  1. W. and K. Hopper: ‘The Puritan Gift: Triumph, Collapse and Revival of an American Dream’, I.B.Tauris & Co. ISBN 978-1-84511-986-7
  2. Page 133
  3. See, for instance, MBA Program Student Experience
  4. N.N. Taleb ‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable’, Second Edition, Penguin, 2010. ISBN 978-0-713-99995-2

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