The Futility of Comparing IT to a Utility

October 29, 2012

In recent weeks, I have been sharing some of the common topics of our fall series of CIO forums across the U.S. and the ideas and debates they inspired. During both the Chicago and New York forums, a topic we all know well, “IT as a commodity versus IT as a value driver,” came up in a couple of ways. The headline of this blog will tell you where I stand and where the majority of our CIO Forum audiences stood as well.

For me, IT is not comparable to a common business utility when competitive advantage is won and lost due to the performance and competence of the IT professionals who understand, integrate, manage and optimize technology. While the technology we buy out of boxes or from the Cloud may be equal at its start, the ways businesses adapt and use those technologies are never identical. Some businesses can be more efficient with their electricity usage. However, operating models and business processes cannot be reshaped by the power that keeps the lights on and the servers humming. Technology–even out of the box–can transform how businesses engage customers, sell, get products to market, etc. What IT and business teams do with the technology they employ is vastly different from business to business.
In our Chicago CIO Forum, the commodity debate evolved into a discussion on the IT discipline itself and how it is seen and taught. We were very lucky to have two bright stars from the academic world on the panel who put the question to the audience as to whether IT should be structured as an engineering discipline, a mathematical discipline or even an analytical discipline. As technology continues to increase in sophistication, we need more and more engineers who understand how it works and how to build it. So engineering and math, right? At the same time, technology shapes our world and fuels the institutions of our global marketplace–from stock exchanges to ecommerce to the media and networks that connect us. So perhaps it’s an analytical discipline after all? Our panelists’ insights underscored the fact that the technology discipline can and must evolve to address the evermore sophisticated role technology plays in our businesses and in our lives.
As the panel discussion turned away from commodity talk and toward the challenge of finding skilled IT professionals, I was reminded of what today’s IT professionals and new tech graduates are looking for in jobs and employers. Challenge. The opportunity to grow. A chance to make an impact and contribute ideas. The chance to innovate and be a part of business progress. I have never recruited someone into a tech job by selling it as commodity work. That’s not what today’s IT professionals want, and it’s not something that will inspire a new generation of STEM professionals. To me, this is another reason why the “IT as a commodity” vision doesn’t work. We need to inspire and attract new technology workers–those with engineering talents, those with analytical minds and those with mathematical gifts. We rely on technology to drive, shape and transform business today. Let’s not sell it short to ourselves or to those we want to join the industry.