Computing Applications Viewpoint

Give Me Information, Not Technology

Don't confuse technology with business solutions, focusing instead on what users value most—information.
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Business users care about their organizations’ information, not about the technology that interconnects or aggregates it, even if the information itself is timely and accurate. In spite of today’s technological flexibility in delivering complex data forms, formats, and relationships, future IT departments should ensure they lean more toward providing information services in ways that achieve organizational goals and focus less on the technology delivering the information. This is especially pertinent as users do not always realize how much help they need using technology intended to improve their organizations’ performance.

This view summarizes our interviews with CIOs and a roundtable discussion we conducted in May 2007 with a dozen senior CIOs representing organizations with aggregate annual sales of more than $300 billion, including Cooper Standard, Federal Mogul, General Motors, Oakland County, Oakland University, and Penske Corporation from a cross section of industries, including manufacturing, services, and government. The CIOs said IT’s greatest value is in managing the information their organizations depend on to do business, regardless of the technology they use [1]. Indeed, the corporate title of Mario Leone of Federal Mogul, an automotive supplier with annual sales of $6.5 billion, recently changed from chief information officer to chief information services officer to stress the information-services aspect of IT. Our view is further supported by a corporate case study we conducted in 2004–2005.1

Separating information services from data-centered delivery technology requires that senior IT management change its thinking. By taking an information-services approach, IT personnel need not concern users with technology considerations or involve them in decisions about how information is gathered, processed, or presented. The technology is of interest only to IT personnel. Otherwise, business executives may be overwhelmed by technology, thus turning them off to IT [4]. It also makes them reluctant to use the information, casting IT’s potential benefit as only "hidden potential" [2].

How did the perception that IT delivers technology rather than business value come to be so pervasive? Deploying IT was information-driven 40 years ago when the field was called "management information systems" and, later, "information systems." Users had minimal involvement in processing data and generating information. Despite the physical aspects of the technology—mainframes, punched cards, hard-copy printed reports—the emphasis was on information and its business applications primarily for report preparation, transaction processing, and business processes (such as bookkeeping). Users trusted IT experts to deal with what they viewed as complicated technology. Although managers did not understand the technology, they were aware of its business benefits and paid for it as a cost center.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, online processing was still mainframe-based and closely guarded by IT professionals. Minicomputers were increasingly reliable and affordable as business computers, with bigger companies using them in distributed IT strategies. When PCs appeared, their relatively low price enabled greater access for whole companies and individual users alike. Consequently, end users were more familiar with IT and began acquiring and developing their own applications. Hardware, software, and telecommunications vendors took note. By the 1990s, they had changed the name of the field from IS to IT as they pushed the latest technology solutions. This shift transformed the IT function from information provider to technology promoter. The vendors then began bypassing the organizations’ IT leaders, approaching users directly.

This marketing approach also included the hidden cost of complexity, leading to user resistance and weakening the traditional IT-user relationship. Many users were indeed intimidated by "too much" technology [4]. Technological complexity also reduced user satisfaction with the related information, along with respect for IT personnel. Despite vendor promises that their hardware and software could do whatever users said they wanted, users often found the technology actually made it more difficult to generate information. Many users blamed IT personnel—ironic because IT personnel were often not involved in and frequently recommended against such deals. As a result, many business managers even today do not realize the business benefits of their organizations’ own technology. Consequently, they may minimize the IT budget, treating IT as purely technical support, ignoring the information component (the I in IT) [2]. Ironically, the CIO of a large manufacturer with $6 billion in annual sales told us that in executive meetings he is regularly asked to fix dysfunctional video projectors because he is viewed as the number-one technology expert in the room; the CIO of a major city in Michigan said the same.

This lack of understanding and appreciation may be partly the fault of IT personnel using technological terminology when interacting with users, at least in part because they don’t know a better way. This is not just an IT phenomenon. For example, most purchasers of costly technology-related consumer products like cars, TVs, and PCs do not want to know how they are produced or the scientific principles on which they depend. They also react unfavorably to technical manuals, often refusing to read them [4]. One lesson is that IT personnel must learn to interact with users to identify information needs without mentioning the latest technical enhancement. Only later, and independent of users, should IT personnel deploy their technological skills to identify the technology needed to support an organization’s information needs.

This approach reorients the traditional systems/business analyst function in the direction of information services, embracing users and managers as partners. IT departments could then identify opportunities to add value by delivering additional information, rather than trying to limit themselves to developing new ways to deliver more data.

Consider how a business organization approaches its potential customers. It typically employs marketing specialists to conduct market research, aiming to identify what drives and excites their needs, as well as how much they are willing to pay for products and services (perception of value). These specialists do not invite potential customers into the organization’s technological deliberations. Only after the market is understood in multiple dimensions are R&D specialists assigned to work on products. Likewise, only after first "studying" their customers should IT "marketing" personnel (business analysts) transfer their findings to IT R&D specialists (designers and programmers) who evaluate the internal cost of addressing these needs by developing systems. IT management must know the value of the added information (provided by the IT marketing personnel who learn it from users) and the cost of the development (provided by IT R&D). It is then able to use the predicted added value the additional information provides (cost/benefit analysis) to support informed go/no-go decisions. Promoting the information component of IT could refocus IT on its information-services origins. Analysts would be expected to identify information needs and how they help users and their organizations generate business value. Having analysts focus on these needs also means less user involvement with technology per se.

IT personnel must learn to interact with users to identify information needs without mentioning the latest technical enhancement.

IT departments often move directly to technological solutions without first understanding users’ business responsibilities. Such haste inevitably exposes users to "solutions" to "problems" they don’t necessarily have. Thus, IT may underserve its constituents by focusing instead on the technological fulfillment of processes and tasks, inevitably weakening the IT-user relationship. Meanwhile, users are unable to take responsibility for their own information needs when IT personnel confuse business information with technology [3]. As reflected in the popular business media [2], top executives in many companies fail to recognize IT’s hidden value because they see only technology.

We documented such a dysfunctional relationship in our 2004–2005 case study. The company’s CIO identified a gap between IT and users who did not utilize all the potential features of the company’s technology and worse did not trust the IT unit. Consequently, the company suffered from an inability to address its information needs. For example, in one plant users did not know they could download information directly from a central database for use in Excel spreadsheets. Instead, they printed hard-copy reports from the ERP system, then manually entered the information into the spreadsheets. Other users were not aware of the system’s ability to manage information for quality-assurance purposes and handled the information manually. One underlying factor was that IT personnel thought more about technological solutions than about the organization’s information needs and their business implications. Trust was ultimately established between users and IT once a particular project leader taught IT to concentrate on users’ business needs and avoid purely technological terminology. Consequently, the users learned more about IT and the business information benefits it was designed to provide.

IT professionals should be aware of their responsibility for supporting their organizations’ information needs through technology. It is the information, not the technology, they value, using it to increase their own personal value to the organization.

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    1. Applegate, L., Austin, R., and McFarlan, F. Corporate Information Strategy and Management. McGraw-Hill Irwin, New York, 2007.

    2. Basu, A. and Jarngin, C. How to tap IT's hidden potential. Wall Street Journal (Mar. 10, 2008), R4.

    3. Licker, P. User responsibility redux. Journal of Information Technology Cases, Applications, and Research 9, 2 (Apr. 2007), 1–4.

    4. Swartz, J. Technology troubles set off tantrums, tears, and tirades. USAToday (Nov. 10, 2006); www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2006-11-05-tech-support_x.htm?csp=34.

    1Ragowsky's and Gefen's study "Why Information Systems Management Is in Trouble and How to Save It" was accepted for publication in Communications.

    DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1349026.1349032

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