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The Blind Men and Information Technology

A recent article in ComputerWorld by Curt Monash reminded me of the poem about the Blind Men and the Elephant. The Computerworld article talked about different points of view from leading technology vendors. According to the article, Oracle and IBM view IT as data-centric, Microsoft views IT as people-centric, and SAP views IT as business-process-centric. In the Blind Men and the Elephant poem (if you don’t remember this poem from your childhood, click here to refresh your memory), six blind men approach an elephant from different vantage points and then argue over whether the elephant is like a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, or a rope. Of course “each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong,” and so it is with the technology vendors as well.

IBM and Oracle are correct in emphasizing data; of course IT is impossible without a reliable means of storing and retrieving data and information. But IBM and Oracle are historically vendors of infrastructure, and we all know that it takes more than infrastructure for IT to be successful; it takes user-friendly systems and solutions. IBM and Oracle provide useful tools for IT organizations, but only a few tools for business users.

Microsoft is correct in emphasizing people and the tools to help them; people are the reason that systems exist in the first place. But Microsoft has traditionally appealed to individuals and small business, and many Microsoft solutions are difficult to implement and support when you scale them up to handle large multi-national, multi-location corporations. Microsoft provides useful tools for business users – not scalable tools for IT organizations.

SAP is correct in emphasizing business processes; efficient processes are at the root of all profitable companies. But the inherent complexity of SAP’s solutions has created a whole industry of consultants just to explain how to best use SAP software. SAP provides tailorable information systems for large corporations – not easy-to-implement solutions that are quickly adaptable to change.

In the poem the six blind men argue “loud and long” about the correct viewpoint, and leading technology vendors do the same thing, as if there is only one correct view of the world. If you’ve fallen under the spell of this vendor propaganda, then you may find yourself arguing that one of the viewpoints is better than another, but here’s the reality: information technology doesn’t do anyone any good unless it makes business people happier and more productive. Data in itself has no value without a context; tools are no help if they’re undependable and hard to use; and business processes don’t mean anything unless people understand them and want to follow them. No IT vendor has a complete solution, and frankly that’s the way I like it. Competition and different viewpoints encourage new ideas and new approaches for solving problems, and we get progress. Ultimately this makes things better for all of us.

Think about how the role of an IT organization has changed over the years in response to vendor advances. First there were electronic accounting machines and operators. Then there were early computers and assembler language programmers. Next came more advanced computers together with higher-level programming languages. Computers become less expensive and a Data Processing department evolved into a Management Information Systems department, and then into an Information Technology organization. Most of IT today isn’t writing code – it’s improving the business by utilizing vendor hardware and software. It’s systems integration and data integration and project management. Underneath is an incredible infrastructure, especially when compared to the early computers with their card readers and tape drives.

We’ve come a long way in IT due to vendor progress, but no single vendor has a complete solution, and that’s not likely to change. You should focus on the elephant – not the various bits and pieces that the vendors advertise. All of those bits and pieces are important, but only as components of the elephant: only as things that fit together with other components to make the people in your business happier and more productive. No vendor is selling elephants, so you’ll have to do the assembly yourself. That’s the role of the CIO: figuring out how to assemble the elephant from all of its components, and then leading the assembly process.

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