What IT can learn from the railway industry

opinion piece - Barnett is a program director for a large IT services company. He can be contacted at tom.barnett@earthlink.net

Once upon a time, railroad tycoons defined their core business as “trains”. This view of their role caused them to miss the kinds of changes in the marketplace that inevitably occur in any business lifecycle. When trucks started to become prevalent, railroad companies didn’t identify the threat they posed to their train business. If the rail companies had thought of themselves as being in “transportation” rather than just trains, they might have seen the direction things were heading and reacted accordingly.

We in IT could heed the lesson of those bygone business leaders by defining ourselves as “business enablers” rather than “information technologists”. With the dizzying speed at which fantastic software and tools are becoming more modularised and packaged these days, it seems like you have to know less about the technology and more about the business. There has been speculation for some time that we could easily be facing the elimination of the CIO and the absorption of many IT functions back into the business units to which they are so tightly linked.

But IT is the department best positioned to look at what a business does and know which tool in our deep technology toolbox could be of the most help. Focusing on how the business side performs its tasks and finding solutions for its concerns will pay much bigger dividends in the end than will rolling out the latest multimillion-dollar project that has all the hottest bells and whistles that doesn’t give the business what it needs.

In the interests of preserving your IT department, there are two key “trains versus transportation” concepts you need to understand. Let’s start with IT’s trains: technology. At this point, most business customers run their own networks and manage complex technology at home. They are becoming increasingly more skilled and demanding as a result.

As an example of what this change could bode, imagine trying to justify hiring a candidate whose title is Certified Document Professional — someone trained in all photocopier functions, from copying to scanning, collating, emailing, faxing and so on. Today’s multifaceted business customer looks at those skills as generally assumed office knowledge and would not be impressed. Now ask yourself how long before other IT functions your department provides are viewed the same way.

The IT industry’s “truck”, on the other hand, is business processes that produce revenue or cut costs. The key concept to keep in mind is that most IT application processes are systematised business processes. The converse follows that most business processes have an IT counterpart. When you think about it, there is really no business process in which IT isn’t involved to some extent.

That means that we, as IT managers, need to be able to see things from the business customer’s side of the fence and ask: “What could IT do to make my company work more efficiently or productively? What barriers can IT remove that impede us from being more responsive?” By walking in our customer’s shoes, we can see what ways we can be of more help.

IT hasn’t done the best job of delivering the tremendous value to business that it is capable of. This is why IT in many companies is looked at as a cost centre rather than as a strategic partner. But IT is in a phenomenal and unprecedented position to assist the business to be better at what it does. IT can energise the business to be more innovative, inventive and creative than ever before.

IT has rested too long on its own early wins. We’ve become enamored of our technological gadgets instead of being driven to understand the business point of view. By seeing clearly what industry we are in and asking what we can do to help, IT can ensure that when the truck arrives, we’ll have a place in the driver’s seat.

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Tags managementInformation Technologyrailways

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