Our industry needs better performance measures

IT lacks a set of good metrics, says Thornton A May

For any leader, one of the most potent tools for influencing others is a strong sense of self. If IT’s leaders don’t know who they are, don’t understand what their organisations stand for and can’t articulate the value that IT can deliver to an organisation’s users, then IT will be ignored or even bypassed.

Richard Scase, author of Global Remix: The Fight for Competitive Advantage, wrote, “Few people now see themselves as members of a particular class, and a growing number feel that even occupation is insignificant to personal identity”. As rampant as this feeling may be, IT workers can’t afford to be struggling with identity.

Perhaps one reason why many IT workers are experiencing professional identity crises is that, more than any other discipline seated at the big table, IT lacks a set of good metrics. We need the organisational version of the Kardashev scale. Developed by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev in 1964, the Kardashev scale is a way to classify civilisations according to their technological advancement. Think how valuable it would be to be able to quickly see how technologically advanced an organisation is.

(The Kardashev scale puts civilisations into three categories. A type one civilisation can harness all the power on a planet, a type two civilisation can harness all the power in a star and a type three civilisation can harness all the available power in a galaxy. Thus, it is of most interest to science fiction writers and other futurists, according to Wikipedia — Editor).

As they exist today, IT’s metrics are, for the most part, miscalibrated. Our dashboards lie to us. How misleading can this be? Consider this actual scenario: a new CIO was brought in by a high-tech firm with over $1 billion in revenue to turn around a failed IT organisation. She asked to see the dashboard her predecessor had used to drive IT (into the ground, as it turned out). Quite to her amazement, all the reports gave the organisation top marks, and all the dials on the balanced scorecard were in the green. According to the formal metrics, things could not have been better.

As IT leaders, we want to convince our corporate leaders that IT materially affects the current health and the future prospects of the enterprise. Why, then, shouldn’t we expect our companies’ investors, being prudent, and executives, not being malfeasant, to insist that we rely on unambiguous, accurate and actionable IT metrics?

Every IT leader of the next generation needs two tools: a mirror and a scale. The mirror is anything that gives people the self-awareness they need so that they fully grasp their place in the workplace and are able to articulate it to those who need to understand it. The mirror helps them understand who they are, who they want to be, what they do, what they want to do and, perhaps most important, why they do what they do.

The scale is any tool that can provide those important metrics and truly reflect how all of IT is doing. And because it truly reflects reality, the scale is to a certain extent the mirror. So, solving the metrics problem might go a long way toward solving the IT identity problem.

The civilisation now on Earth sits below the three types of civilisation defined by the Kardashev scale because it has not harnessed all the power available on the planet. Perhaps a Kardashev scale for organisations would be similarly calibrated, with type one organisations able to harness all the computing power and brainpower available in the organisation. That would be something to aim for.

— Thornton A May is management consultant and IT industry commentator. He can be contacted at thorntonamay@aol.com

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