The latest and greatest versus the valuable

A World of Bytes by Curt Monash

This article expands on some comments I made on Curt Monash‘s latest blog posting: Why the basically good choice of Aneesh Chopra for US CTO scares the bejeesus out of me. In this, Curt argues that:

[the new US government CIO and CTO may be] so focused on shiny new technologies that they won’t address some of the devastatingly critical challenges of government IT.

Curt then goes on to list some of the important areas that he is concerned will not recieve enough attention. Although Curt’s piece was directed at a very specific area, I think that it raises some general questions. Here are the comments that I made on his blog:

“As you allude to, one of the main problems that IT faces is its focus on the new and shiny, sometimes to the exclusion of the older, but more worthy. I’m by no means a technology Luddite, progress is to be desired, but there has to be some reason for it; something beyond just being neat.

This is a double-headed monster in my opinion. First IT types like me are often drawn to the new and sexy – maybe that’s why we got into the business in the first place. Second, the flashy – particularly when it makes it to general business publications, can generate a “me too” attitude in senior executives, sometimes deflecting IT attention from less glamorous, but more necessary work.

As with most things in life, a balance between both elements of IT is probably what is most necessary.”

I have touched on this area already a couple of times. It was one of the issues that I identified in Problems associated with the IT cycle, where I said:

“On top of this we can add some attributes of IT staff which, although generally desirable, can have a downside as well. Many IT people want to be involved in the latest and greatest technology – this is not always what is going to add most value to the business.”

Also, much of my article about dashboards relates to this issue, as may be deduced by the title: “All that glisters is not gold” – some thoughts on dashboards. In this I comment:

“[…] echoing my comments on BI tools in general, I think an attractive looking dashboard is really only the icing on the cake. The cake itself has two main other ingredients:

  1. The actual figures that it presents (and how well they have been chosen) and
  2. The Information Architecture that underpins them”

Making what I realise is something of a bold leap here, I think that this fascination with the new and technically cool is one reason that IT managers sometimes feel left out of the inner circle of executives of an organisation. In some people’s minds (sometimes those of influential people) IT is too readily associated with Sci-Fi conventions, comic books and and pocket protectors (with of course my apologies in advance to devotees of each of these). This may seem a trivial point, but such associations sometimes run deep; everyone loves a good stereotype.

Of course there are many business-focussed IT managers out there striving to deliver value for their organisations, to boost sales, or reach new customers, or reduce costs; I have been one of them myself. But these industrious individuals are sometimes still seen through the “geek” prism I have described above. Maybe it is only by focsuing more established technologies, ones that demonstrably add business value, that the profession will be able to throw off this yoke.

Although I am rather fond of using quotations on this blog, it is not typical for me to cite religious texts. However, maybe St. Paul had IT in mind when he wrote:

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

While the IT leads of the US government can be accused of too great a focus on what many might view as childish things, then it seems that we still have some way to go.

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