Book review – The IT Value Stack

To listen to Ade McCormack, the IT profession is in a woeful state. Among other shortcomings, it is far too distant from the rest of the business, it has an poor record for delivery, it struggles to communicate effectively and it is rarely able to quantify the value of IT investment.

The upshot is not only low self-esteem in the IT organisation but the sense that senior management elsewhere in the business view IT as a necessary but hardly strategic activity. “For many organisations, IT is no more strategic than catering services,” McCormack bemoans in The IT Value Stack. “‘Nobody died today, so why does the catering manager want to talk to me?’ bellows the CEO. So it is with the CIO. ‘The email works, so why does he want to talk to me?’”

McCormack, a consultant and business writer, is on a mission to make IT worthy of the epithet ‘profession’. And it is not just IT that needs to change. With IT now an inseparable part of most business processes, senior business management have to develop a much keener sense of IT’s current role.

The path forward will require substantial change in the way IT and business interact, he argues. Previous attempts in this area have not gone far enough: ‘bridging the business-IT divide’ simply used intermediaries to span the gap but kept the two apart.

Instead, McCormack is promoting the concept of ‘business-IT entwinement’, whereby the IT department becomes a partner in the business and has a voice in the determination of business strategy.

To get there, he proposes a seven-step process, with the goal of maximising the business return on IT. The steps may not be wholly original, but the value of the discussion lies in the comprehensive analysis of each, and in the extensive accompanying comments from IT practitioners at companies such as Boots, Astra Zeneca, ITV and Standard Life.

At the base of the stack is Strategy Entwinement. “To obtain real value from IT investment, the IT strategy cannot simply be a response to the business strategy; the IT department needs to play a role in determining business strategy, and at times actually driving it,” says McCormack.

The IT organisation is well positioned to provide input on process efficiency and new process development – McCormack’s Process Entwinement.

Alongside that, People Entwinement tries to put the users and technologists on the same wavelength by encouraging IT staff to communicate in business terms and for users to comprehend the role of IT.

Other parts of the stack are familiar territory: Technology Management focuses on how to navigate through the complexity and risk associated with technology ‘accident black spots’; Service Management reinforces the notion that the IT function needs to be run as a services business; and the Circulation Management layer is all about ensuring the efficient flow of data, information and knowledge.

At the top of the stack is Value Measurement, which seeks to show how the value of IT investment to the business needs to be quantified.

The model is eminently sensible. And while the IT management of most companies will have started down most of these roads, the wholesale implementation of the model is going to be a multi-year project.

While The IT Value Stack will prove a helpful guide to many, it might irk others. McCormack’s distinctly jaded sense of the state of IT will not reflect the progress many organisations have made in the past two or three years. Characterising the IT department as a “technology rest home for the business-indifferent” may be a bit extreme. And “The CFO-CIO relationship is one of master and slave” would give the impression that McCormack has been associating with some of the most downtrodden of IT executives.

The style is very direct in other ways: McCormack hits the reader with bold statement after bold statement, not always backed up by solid argument – there is a distinct absence of citations, hard numbers or even examples. There is great input from his commentators, which might have worked even better had they been ‘entwined’ in the arguments rather than run as a long series of quotes at the end of each chapter

Those issues aside, The IT Value Stack is a solid analysis of the challenges of IT management today and a well-structured guide on how to progressively move beyond them.

The IT Value Stack: A Boardroom Guide to IT Leadership. By Ade McCormack. Publisher: Wiley. Price: £29.99.

David Cliff

David Cliff is managing director of Houghton le Spring-based Gedanken, a company specialising in coaching-based support and personal development. Cliff is an experienced trainer, manager and therapist,...

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