How much do senior (non-technology) executives know about IT? Not much, I would argue – and – here’s the worst part: they know less and less every year. In fact, I believe that senior executives know much less about IT today than they did 20 years ago.
How is that possible? After all, IT spending has increased dramatically since 1985. IT certainly has become more important to the creation, delivery and support of products and services. It has also become a kind of drug that no one can really live without (try losing email for a day, let alone a week).
There are 10 times as many technology commercials in the media as there used to be, and the Internet has made it effortless to find out about anything anytime anyone wants. There are more technology sales and marketing people than there ever were and the ranks of technology consultants have increased so fast over the past 20 years that they now represent more than a small army ready and willing to do whatever it is we need done (or think we need done after they educate us about what they think we think we need done).
I recently spoke technology to a group of very senior business executives; IT reported to more than half of them. But few of them had ever heard of thin clients, service-oriented architecture, or the latest wireless technologies.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Why in the world would senior executives need to know about the latest 3G communications technologies or service-oriented and event-driven architectures?” You would be dead right if you were referring to the underlying technologies of these architectures, but completely wrong if you were referring to what these technologies can do for business.
It’s the relationships that are broken. The relationship between technology variation and support costs, the relationship between wireless communications and mobility, and the relationship among data integration and cross-selling and up-selling, among countless other relationships too numerous to mention here.
The gaps I noted were nothing shortly of stunning. For example, very few executives understand the relationships among application architectures, hosting, thin-client computing and cost. When they were told what the early thin-client pilots were yielding in desktop and laptop support cost savings, they were shocked.
Similarly, very few understand the relationship between increased eBusiness and digital security threats, though they all had heard of viruses and worms.
None of them knew much about technologies that would secure business-to-business (B2B) transaction processing, like public key infrastructure.
They almost fell out of their chairs when they heard that the total-cost-of-ownership (TCO) for wireless PDAs was more than $4,000 per year per user.
The technology trend that surprised them most was the option to rent (versus buy and install) large enterprise applications, like ERP and CRM applications. By and large the sense was that these big applications had to be installed and maintained by consultants who would then – along with the software vendors – require annual feedings of large quantities of cash to keep the software running. The whole rent-versus-buy discussion has not occurred in their companies.
What’s the take-away from all this? Well, in spite of the increased visibility of technology and the rhetoric around technology’s role in business, there’s a growing gap between technology trends and business opportunities. Ironically, the largest gap is how enlightened technology deployment can actually reduce operational costs while at the same time freeing up cash for more strategic technology investments.
If the ignorance trend is growing – and I believe that it is – then it might make sense for companies to invest in some internal communications designed to reduce the gap. Executive briefings, short courses or any number of other educational steps might be taken to help non-technologists better understand the operational and strategic value of technology.