For the decades that I’ve been in the IT profession pundits have predicted the demise of the role of the Chief Information Officer (CIO). So far, those predictions have not come to fruition. In fact, not only has the role of the CIO transformed multiple times and thrived, it became progressively significant as organizations grew more technology-enabled and management information became increasingly vital to business as we chartered the world of digital, mobility, and AI.

A new mantra is now in the air, predicting the demise of the IT department and arguing that it is no longer relevant or needed. It is a tempting thought, especially for those who have grown frustrated with their IT departments (often for good reasons). An article in the Wall Street Journal last November, titled “It’s Time to Get Rid of the IT Department”, garnered a lot of attention and equipped those frustrated souls with well-articulated arguments to pull the trigger on their IT departments. Similar articles on the theme have appeared in business publications and online blogs.

The case made by the “R.I.P IT Department” (or “RIP IT”) camp deserves notice. In summary:

  • What keeps breathing life into IT departments is antiquated legacy systems that are too costly or complex to replace with simpler solutions that provide superior business value.
  • Today’s workers are far more technology-literate than their brethren of yore. Many of them know about some technology products more than the IT staff.
  • The average consumers’ IT experience in daily life (web, mobile, IoT) is smoother and more self-empowering than what they face at work with onerous IT processes, rules of conduct, and slow responsiveness.
  • Technology is now in the fiber of business. It no longer makes sense to have a “department” dedicated to it.
  • The Cloud has been a game-changer: rather than wait months for IT to design, build, and deploy an environment, it can be acquired and put to use in days (or hours).
  • No-Code or Low-Code solutions enable business users to build and launch applications without the involvement of the IT department. These tools accelerate time-to-market, with the secondary benefit of reduced cost of development.
  • Doing away with the IT department resolves the chronic problem of IT and Business alignment. IT would become a piece and parcel of business activities, requiring no distinct strategy, budget, or alignment.

The WSJ article goes further by averring that “having an IT department is exactly what will prevent companies from being innovative, agile, customer-focused and digitally transformed”, and that it has become an island inside the business.

IT professionals may find it difficult to refute these harsh pronouncements entirely. Some are statements of fact, others indictments against IT departments that, in many organizations, have failed to adapt to current realities and reconfigure themselves to better assimilate the work demands and habits of IT consumers.

But are these declarations true for every organization and do they make the case to “de-fund” the IT department?

For Real or a Pipe Dream?

To answer this question, let’s journey through the mind of fictional Carl, the CEO of a $500M, 1100-employee company, with multiple divisions in the US, Europe, and Asia. Carl reads business publications religiously, especially articles about IT. The subject is not his expertise, but he knows enough to recognize its importance to his business in today’s digital world and to be mildly skeptical of its ostensive cost/benefit equation.

Doing away with the IT department that is costing his company a little over 2% of revenue (though he never quite understood the significance of this number) is an enticing idea, especially since it was recently brought up by a director of his company’s board. He sits on his porch one Sunday morning daydreaming about a life without the IT department.

Thanks to insightful narratives like the aforementioned WSJ article, the rosy side is easy to size up. A judicious executive, Carl knows there must be drawbacks. Thoughts rush through his head:

  • Can we pull this off? We had a heck of a time staffing implementation teams for every major technology project we’ve undertaken. We sought people with excellent business and technology skills to fill the roles, but we still made the statistics of troubled IT projects. Why would turning IT over to these same people yield a better outcome than when we asked them to co-drive or partner on IT projects?
  • The No-Code/Low-Code panacea: While the adoption of no-code tools by business users is on the rise, in nine out of 10 cases IT departments continue to be involved, according to a Creatio survey of 1,000 IT executives who have introduced the platforms into their environments. Stunningly, a Zdnet article on that topic reports that only five percent of low-code/no-code development moves faster than traditional IT-centric development. The low-code development approach still requires a basic understanding of underlying technologies and IT acumen, hence the need for IT to hold users’ hands, according to the article.
  • I only ride ’em…: There is a scene in the WW2 movie “Kelly’s Heroes” where the Master Sergeant asks his platoon tank commander, Sgt Oddball, why he was not helping the crew fix a broken-down tank, and Sgt Oddball sardonically replies “I only ride ’em, I don’t know what makes ’em work”. Today’s workers see technology as a tool to accomplish a task, but very few of them have a desire to get under the hood and “fix the tank”. I doubt that the expensive Ivy League MBAs we hired last year would prefer to tinker with apps and servers instead of the specialties we hired them for (Finance, Marketing, Supply Chain, etc.).
  • Will this improve our data health? Our digital transformation journey and business intelligence efforts have been marred by poor data quality. We are on par with the 71% of respondents to a survey that expressed shaky confidence in the quality of the data that is sent to their analytics platforms. And this is with an IT department that tries desperately to maintain a data governance framework. What will happen when we have more departmental data sources with little or no consistency?
  • Will the dominoes tumble? When I took over this company, which had grown in part by a series of acquisitions, divisions were operating with a high degree of IT autonomy. As a result, these divisions were running different versions of the same industry-specific software, causing excessive costs from computing maintenance to management reporting because of lack of integration. It was only after a long and arduous IT architecture effort that we established ownership of business applications, security and system administration, complex integrations, and overall consistency in the IT landscape. Will we be at risk of losing control again?
  • Any security worries? Brian, the tech wizard in Sales, became his department’s hero recently by installing an online sales system in days. But he neglected to secure a copy of the transaction file that exposed customers’ credit cards and personal details (this actually happened, and Brian’s defense was “I am not an IT guy!”) With cyber breaches on the rise and hackers becoming more sophisticated, will do-it-your-way departmental IT make our corporate data more secure or vulnerable?
  • Where will we house the unpleasant stuff? Our IT Service Desk is perhaps the busiest group in the company. They field and resolve users’ problems and queries related to hardware, software, and anything with a button on it. We track their issue-resolution time to ensure that they are effective in getting people back to work. Will every department in the company need to have its own help desk? Will every department choose its vendors to procure similar products? What else will fall out of the basket that we’ll need a home for?

Carl awakens from his daydream with unease. It did not take him long to think of a few critical areas that would make this pill hard to digest. Doing away with the IT department may indeed boost departmental agility, but he could not see his company doing better overall. Perhaps the next CEO will have the nerve to try this out when conditions are more opportune and the concept more mature.

No Pass for the IT Department

Our astute fictional CEO gave us a brief illustration of the cost of dispensing with the IT department in a company like his. That does not prove the “RIP IT” enthusiasts wrong, only that what they advocate does not apply to every organization. Some organizations can do without an IT department:

  • Start-ups with limited scale and resources that would rather shift capital from IT investments to other parts of their operation
  • Smaller enterprises with a narrow operational scope and minimal technology requirements
  • Companies with minimal collaboration needs where employees do not need a cohesive platform

For most of the rest, shedding the IT department will likely be akin to a do-it-yourself root canal.

None of this makes the IT department immune to irrelevance. A decade or so ago IT departments complained about and cracked down on “shadow IT”, when they should have seen it for what it was — a no-confidence vote by IT users who sought modest (and often crude) tools to go around the IT department and accomplish their work unhindered. They now have a wide range of better choices.

The centralized, protectionist, IT department that owns all the solutions and plays internal technology cop is no longer relevant in today’s environment. How it can remain a core of the enterprise is a topic for another post, but it starts with delineating between what IT should own (i.e., security, architecture, integration) and what it should orchestrate through counseling, training, and co-creating policies with peer departments. This is a job for the IT department, but it must be choreographed by the entire organization to respond to workers’ needs and preserve the core value of IT — with or without an IT department.

Author: Bassam Fawaz

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