Sunday, May 6, 2007

Mopping up the Bits

JP Rangaswami's latest agonizing over at confused of calcutta seems to be raking up the familiar coals of the value of IT to the firm or, more specifically, the return on the firm's investment (ROI) in its IT budget. As Leporello sings in the second act of Don Giovanni, "Questa poi la conosco pur troppo." I know this bit all too well, but I was not prepared for David Butler's attempt to invoke a metaphor for how thoughts about IT may be changing:

A similar transformation has taken place in literary criticism, where canonical Leavisite judgments have given to way to Iser and reader response theory. The overthrow of supposedly authoritative doctrine.

I like David’s literary metaphor because it provides an interesting lens for viewing the distinction between product economy and service economy. One of the key problems is that all of the that JP raised in his "musings" were about production, which implies that we are talking about products. Indeed, the very ROI model is product-oriented: If I lay out X dollars today to purchase widget W, then can I measure how much richer I shall be after, say, a year’s time than I would have been had I not purchased W? There are probably plenty of widgets that can be subjected to that kind of reasoning, but I do not think they account for a substantial portion of the IT economy.

So let us consider a modest proposal (in the Swiftest sense of the word): The proper place for IT management is under Site Services! (Before everyone gets indignant about “professional values,” one of my friends from the UK told me that, during the Second World War, the shortage of medical help was so drastic that the military did its own training for emergency medical services; and, unless I am mistaken, the best trainees were the ones who had experience as garage mechanics. So let’s talk about the work, rather than the masks!) Now I have to confess that I have no idea how any large business budgets for Site Services and even less idea of whether the corporate bean counters even ask about the return on those particular expenditures; but I think there may be a useful object lesson there, even if it is not a very dignified one.

To think out of the box, you have to get out of the box. I have yet to encounter anyone involved with Site Services at the “CxO” level (for the usual values of x: I, K, F, E, etc.). Yet the “value that matters” from IT, whether internally or externally, keeps coming back to rendering or facilitating services; and Site Services tends to be the only part of the budget systematically examined in terms of paying for services rendered.

This is why we should examine that literary metaphor, at least in passing. Leavisite criticism concentrates on the text as product, as an object for evaluation. Iser introduced the idea of reading as a relationship between author and reader (which may even extend beyond completing the reading of any particular text). Leave it to a good literary critic to understand a service relationship better than the economists and technicians!

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