Argument for Changing Internal IT Departments

Joe Peppard makes the argument that it’s time to get rid of the IT department in a WSJ article from November 27, 2021.

I don’t disagree with everything Mr. Peppard says. For example, when he suggests that “putting tech people in each department enables faster decision-making and shared ownership. And no handoff to slow down work,” he is 100% spot on.

And when he says, “These days, the business is technology and technology is the business.” I could not agree more. When IT folks talk about “the business,” too often they see it as something distinct, separate from themselves. Their mission, their purpose, is pure—IT people work on higher systems and don’t get themselves dirty with the daily skirmishes of business. But I’ve always told my teams that unless we’re working for a software development company, our business is not IT; our business is whatever is being supported by that IT.

Mr. Peppard also notes that if more IT people were embedded directly with core business functions and technology becomes decentralized, there would likely be a need to centralize some functions. Here I disagree. There would most certainly be an exponential need to have centralization of key components. Without that centralization, the end result would dissemble into a group of fiefdoms and territories to be fought over, accompanied by religious-scale wars related to code languages, hardware platforms, and even versioning controls.

Mr. Peppard argues that groups’ needs can change from month to month, which will make the task more difficult in a decentralized environment, and “senior executives will need to acknowledge that they themselves are often part of the problem. When it comes to the digital world, many don’t know what they don’t know.”

He suggests departments often can’t predict what technology needs they will have in a year’s time. This follows the logic that Mr. Peppard claims he is advocating against—the tool or delivery mechanisms may not be known today (for example, we may not be able to see the next MySpace, Twitter, or LinkedIn), however, the departments will know what they need to do even if they may not know how they will do it.

The bulk of day-to-day tasks and needs will not change over the near term. The job and requirements of an HR department will remain the same in two years, or ten, as they are today. HR will need to perform compliance training, process vacation and sick leave, and properly deal with wage garnishments.

Likewise the Marketing department may be looking at a new delivery mechanism, but their purpose will not be very different. They will still need to produce, distribute, and track assets, whether that is a 4k or 6k studio camera or a mobile phone. Basic tools will be used to produce information. Memos will be written, scripts and texts will be developed, and approvals will be required before releasing the content messaging.

These are not unknowns. Almost no business will have a complete turnover of technology from one year to the next. Experts have been portending the death of email as a communication medium for over ten years. Frankly, it is still one of the most effective forms of communications within organizations and for client and prospect outreach.

Mr. Peppard says “… if you have your own data centers, on-site servers and software, you will need specialists to manage all this tech. This was the original objective of the IT department. But with cloud computing and other technology innovations, having hardware or software physically on the premises is no longer necessary.” I agree with that statement, but disagree with the premise that therefore specialized staff won’t be required.

His statements assume that everything is plug-and-play and that there will be no need for technology specialists to support it. Try asking a marketing manager or film executive to contact Amazon Web Services, Azure Web Services, or Google Services to request that deleted data be restored. It won’t be a pretty sight. They do not even speak the same language.

Mr. Peppard also says, ”Moreover, how we build software today has radically changed, too. For example, low-code/no-code software development platforms allow employees to drag and drop application components, connect them together to create mobile or web apps without programming skills. It’s another function of the old IT department that no longer is necessary.” Once again, his premise lacks the understanding of a need for centralized quality control and standards adherence.

Without oversight, will each department be able to manage its own quality control? And from a cost perspective, what will that mean if every department is doing its own thing? What about from a knowledge-base perspective? Or knowledge-retention perspective? As an engineer who has had to work backwards to support systems designed and managed by “one guy” who was let go or died, this can be a huge resource drain.

When standardized technologies can be employed for regular, everyday tasks, companies benefit from a leverage of scale. Accounting and Compliance can use the same spreadsheet tool without worry for compatibility or product support.

Never mind risk or compliance issues. The marketplace of ideas is a great place to audition new tools to come up with the best of breed. What happens to a department working independently that builds its solutions entirely on the backs of tools that go extinct, either because a better tool came along, or because of mergers and acquisitions? Will those solutions get reprogrammed using the “winning” tool? What will the man-hour cost be of reprogramming an application or ten… or one hundred?

The application and tool sprawl that results from a “use what you like” environment will end up costing significantly in maintenance and support as well as patching time and compliance.

To highlight the areas where we agree:

  1. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) should be embedded within the business unit.
  2. Some standards and compliance management should be standardized.
  3. Barriers of division between Business and IT as separate entities should be broken down.

However, just as there are subject-matter experts in Sales and Accounting, there should be subject-matter experts in IT management. The only way for an IT department to work effectively is for it to become a launching ramp rather than a speed bump. Everyone in the business needs to be more IT savvy these days, both for protection from adversaries as well as knowing how to use the tools in the best way possible. Likewise, the IT departments of old cannot be left to dictate the way a business functions with little regard to the impact—negative and positive—those decisions will have on the company’s performance as a whole.