Thoughts on The Wall Street Journal's "It's Time to Get Rid of the IT Department"

Improving IT Dec 13, 2021

When the Wall Street Journal recently published this opinion piece, it caused quite a few ripples. I first saw the article mentioned in a sysadmin group where, unsurprisingly, it was immediately called a “hit piece” and derided. As the article spread it was clearly polarizing – there were some nuanced views, but especially for those who disagreed with the premise, there wasn’t much in the way of middle ground.

The more firmly a commentator disagreed with the article, the more their opinions seemed to reflect exactly the kind of thinking that the article suggests revisiting. With genuine consideration for the ideas presented though, I believe that many IT professionals and the companies they work for could significantly increase effectiveness throughout their organizations.

I’ve worked with many smart and talented IT department members who understand how to make technology work in the corporate world. The article isn’t calling out a lack of knowledge or capability on the part of the people inside our IT departments, instead, it talks about how increasingly critical IT is and how our expectations of technology in business should be elevated. It argues that having a dedicated and separate (and often isolated) department often misses the mark on aligning technology solutions with the needs of a company.

These smart, capable people who could be bringing so much value to the company they work for are often stuck inside a department that has to fill an awkward role of being simultaneously subservient to other departments of the company while holding all the power over their use of technology.

Most companies that have been started in the last few years think about IT with a very different mindset compared to companies old enough to have an “IT Department”. In many ways, the shift described by the article has already happened, and the author is trying to explain to slow-moving enterprises why the nimble companies around them that can execute quickly are able to do so.

There are several reasons for this shift, but a big part of it is the fact that traditional IT just isn’t needed to get most things done anymore. The primary forces at play are:

  1. You are 2 minutes and a credit card number away from having a fully managed, hosted version of most of the software that companies need today.
  2. Companies increasingly see agility as a competitive advantage, and needing to go to a third party to get anything done, even when the third party is inside your own company, significantly reduces that agility.

Think of the software you need to run a business today. Off the top of my head, I can think of office/productivity suite, email, messaging, accounting, payroll/HR, CRM, project management, company website/blog, ticketing/customer service, phone systems, and conferencing. For most companies, the market-leading solution for each item is a SaaS product available to anybody who wants to sign up for it.

Consider the traditional role of an IT department. Especially with the effects of Covid-19 and the work from home movement, more and more parts of the job description just don’t apply anymore:

  • Networking – What network? I just need my home internet connection to launch Slack/Hubspot/Gmail/Zoom/Etc.
  • Identity management – How critical is centralized identity management anymore? Sure, I have to maintain separate logins for the different services – but with everybody accepting my google identity anyway and password management built into my browser, it’s a non-issue.
  • Infrastructure management – Why maintain application servers, when you can have somebody else do it as part of a monthly per-user fee for that hosted application?
  • Keeping software up-to-date – I would probably have a hard time turning off automatic updates for my browser and my OS even if I wanted to. When users’ computers (and tablets, and smartphones) are effectively dumb terminals for all of this browser-based software, the requirements around the devices that employees are using are increasingly irrelevant.
  • Application development – Sure, not everybody has learned to write computer software. But, if various departments have that expertise in-house they can just get things done rather than relying on a different department to do it for them. Low-code solutions have become practical enough to meet many needs of various business users and also act as a significant multiplier of developer time.
  • Printers, desk phones, other hardware – The BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) trend started years ago and has only accelerated with the work-from-home movement.

Alignment of incentives and responsibility is an important part of organizational design & management, and this alignment is key in defining what role an IT department should play.

  • If I run a sales department, why should I go to an IT department to procure a CRM? I know what will best help my sales organization, and which CRM has the features to assist me along the way.
  • My sales department has a budget, which should account for all the costs in my department to get our jobs done – including our CRM. Moving the budget for a sales tool over to a different department means any budgetary considerations are now divorced from the needs we are trying to meet. If I am responsible for the entire sales budget (including technology tools), I am incentivized to get the biggest bang for the buck.
  • Asking an IT department to develop software, or build an integration, or analyze data for my sales department can sometimes be roughly equivalent to outsourcing it to a third-party contractor. There is often little connection between the developers inside the IT department and my sales department. If anything, outsourced developers are incentivized knowing they can be “fired” at the stroke of a pen, A companies own IT department may in fact be even less incentivized.
  • Why should I have to open a ticket with an IT department for things like adding a user to the system? I’m already in the CRM every day, why can’t I just add those users as needed? I want to get my new employees up and running immediately; at best the incentive for the IT department is a metric for how quickly they can close the tickets that have been opened. This means they aren’t actually incentivized to help me – just to close tickets.
  • To quote the Wall Street Journal piece directly: This model [traditional IT] positions the IT island as a supplier, mandated to build IT solutions and deliver services to the mainland. And it inevitably means that the metrics by which the IT department is measured are often irrelevant to the success of the business.

I think it’s important to call out a few things that the article is NOT saying:

  • The article doesn’t make the claim that IT functions are going away.
  • There is no insistence that a free-for-all approach to tech is needed.
  • For any legacy systems in place, nobody expects to have the maintenance and support of those systems suddenly dumped elsewhere.

Instead, the article proposes a decentralized system where IT responsibilities are handled inside departments and even individual teams. Technical solutions are now more accessible than ever, and individuals in today’s workforce can be expected to have the level of competency to use those solutions.

When regulations and compliance or other external influences require centrally managing certain parts of the information or technology in a company, those parts may need to remain under a traditional “IT department”. As a company becomes large enough, having a department to support interoperability between the different distributed teams can be helpful – but that role must always be one of support, rather than one of control.

Yes – bigger, older companies with lots of legacy concerns will find this challenging. If a bank can decentralize its IT operations as shown in the article though, your company probably can too.

Technology will be an increasingly critical part of the competitive advantage companies have available to them. Putting that technology directly into the hands of the people who are responsible for execution will help them leverage that competitive advantage.

Far from being a hit piece, I believe that the article discussed here is optimistic about what we can do with technology inside our organizations. Our IT departments are full of very smart people who are capable of becoming an integral part of the business they belong to, rather than residents of a disconnected island that only understands what is happening on the mainland via requirements documents.

Help our IT professionals become a direct part of the businesses they are helping, where they in turn can help everyone in their departments directly participate in the technology they use.

Let departments and teams pick the technology that best fits their needs. Allow them to be responsible for that technology, and decide how to fully use it to their advantage.

Transform technology into a tool that helps its users, rather than a collection of systems centrally managed by a department whose incentives aren’t aligned with the success of those who use them.

I’ll close the way the article does: “Organizations need IT. But they almost certainly don’t need an IT department.