In an excellent article, Eric D. Brown argues that the way to drive innovation within IT is to radically realign the organization into Operations vs Strategy, a revamp that directly enables the strategic application of new technology to solve business problems. While this may sound like the typical IT split of operations, development, etc, Eric is keen to point out that he is actually talking about something much more substantial:

“Strategic IT contains the enterprise architects, business analysts and business technologists. This is the team that drives innovation. This is the team where you hire extremely creative people and point them at the business problems and ask them to solve those problems.”

As I read the article, my mind went back to 1994, when I was at NCR. The company was undergoing a major transformation, not the least of which was the merging of 5 IT groups into 1 when multiple independent business units were brought together into a San Diego/Los Angeles dual-campus environment. Managers were jockeying for position in the new organization, all theoretically trying to do right for their 100+ charges, but there was trouble brewing. In what nearly amounted to a mutiny, a small group of (vocal) thought leaders spoke up to express their displeasure that the behind-closed-doors managerial machinations were determining their future without any input. Existing IT was broken, and without intervention it would continue to be so – just in a much more widely-geographic format.

I can’t give enough credit to heads Irene Meyer-Lopez and Bruce Rehnberg, who recognized the problem and did something original: they took management out of the picture. Key representatives from all parts of the diverse IT units were invited to discuss what they disliked about their organizations and brainstorm what could be done to resolve the issues. The future IT org was being designed by a bunch of individual contributors rather than the existing power base.

I clearly recall our weekly trips to “neutral territory” at a Dana Point meeting place. Matt Bateman, Lisa Malgeri, Chris Claborne, Gary Ryback, Gilbert Seigel. (Ah memories. If nothing else, all this namedropping will be good for their Google rankings…) We railed against the “stovepipe” organizational style and lobbied for a more strategic alignment where innovative uses of technology would help drive the business.

In the end, most of our suggestions were implemented. It put us on the right path with a strategically-based organization, and the vested interest in the outcome made us all much more of a cohesive team. A bit of roll-up-the-sleeves work up front meant a much more drama-free team environment in the end. (If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.) In retrospect, it was the best thing for morale and bottom-up buy-in that Irene/Bruce could have done.

And it was a seminal time for me, because those meetings helped to form the basis for a management philosophy that I outlined in a 1998 whitepaper. In it, I proposed an organizational structure that completely replaced the “stovepipe” groups with shared responsibilities that were more tightly aligned with 3 main IT units: Business Applications, Infrastructure, and what I called “Opportunities”. (This would be what Eric considers “Strategic”.) As I set out on my own in 1999, I implemented the framework for this new IT alignment in the AirFiber organization.

In this B.I.O model, the Business and Infrastructure groups would be focused on keeping the lights on, the costs, low, and the information flowing. But the “Opportunities” group – whether a formal entity or a matrix team – would be focused on pushing the envelope, breaking the status quo. Technology is always changing, and not only can its proper (and timely) application push new business efficiencies, but it can help to break the “that’s not the way we’ve done it” entrenchment that is all too common in IT.

Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to see what such an organization could do “at scale”. AirFiber growth peaked and then fell victim to the dot-com bust, while other employment since has been strictly SMB. But the philosophy is still there in my management style, even if the large-scale personnel has not been available. It’s a concept that has always resonated with me, and its nice to see that people like Chris Brown, Mark McDonald, and Rachel Dines see the potential. But a ‘new’ paradigm? I won’t go that far. Atypical, yes. Radical, maybe. But not unheard of. The precedent had already been set at NCR, AirFiber, and likely other businesses before.