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Down To Business: Business Technology Needs A Youth Movement

Posted by SIM on February 3, 2007

It’s not about replacing seasoned veterans with cheaper talent. It’s about cultivating a culture where new technology approaches can thrive.
By Rob Preston
Feb. 3, 2007

How old is your business technology organization? No, not how long has it been around, but what’s the average age of its people? More important, how many of its 20- and 30-somethings hold positions of authority–real authority, meaning they drive or influence your company’s key technology strategies and decisions? What’s the average tenure of someone in your organization, and how does that compare with other departments where you work?

Like the rest of the U.S. populace, business technology organizations are aging. But as most companies orient their marketing, sales, and customer service toward younger consumers, corporate IT lags behind.

Only 6% of U.S. companies say they want to lead in adopting new technologies, according to an Accenture study done last year, compared with 15% in Europe and 19% in China. In mobile computing and communications, in particular, the United States is years behind the developed countries of Europe and Asia.

Another case in point: The technology that excites the younger crowd–Google and Yahoo apps, MySpace social networking, Apple and other gadgets, AOL instant messaging, Second Life role playing–are still foreign to or forbidden at most U.S. IT shops. Of course, we can’t ignore the security, regulatory compliance, management, and worker productivity pitfalls of giving users free rein with their latest and greatest toys, but these promising business technologies and tools often are rejected without any consideration.

A colleague recently asked IT whether he could use Google’s desktop search tool to help him sort through his rat’s nest of files. The answer: sorry, no. End of discussion. We need to think more like Brad Shipp, VP of IT for Cox New England, who told InformationWeek last year that business technology organizations must learn why that unsanctioned Web app or other tool is being used, “because it’s obviously filling some kind of need that IT isn’t meeting.” Shipp added: “They’re all red flags, but they’re also opportunities for doing something better.”

A more open, nimble approach to new technologies needs to be part of your organization’s culture. “Shops” are for barbers and woodworkers and unions. Business technology organizations must assemble on the front lines of innovation.

All forward-thinking companies are trying to shift their 80-20 tech spending, whereby they spend 80% of their money on maintaining legacy systems and only 20% on new initiatives that drive new revenue and attract new customers. Certainly, keeping the lights on and trains running is vital, honorable work, and it’s an absolute resource hog. But companies will never dislodge 80-20 to 70-30, much less 50-50, as long as their legacy IT decision-makers protect their legacy fiefdoms. There must be some room for experimentation, for the old Skunk Works projects.

Before you sic the AARP on me, this is not a call for age discrimination–replacing seasoned veterans with cheaper talent. It’s a call for younger, more flexible thinking. The smartest companies aren’t just aligning IT with their businesses. (If you haven’t done that already, your fiercest competitors already are lapping you.) The smartest companies are aligning IT with their customers’ businesses. And guess what: Unless you’re selling trusses or white loafers or Buicks, many of your customers are acting a lot younger than they were 10 years ago and will increasingly demand that you reach out to them and serve them in more interesting, innovative ways.

Even the senior set, which is more educated and affluent than ever, is more receptive to new technologies and approaches. With only a few years to go before the baby boomers turn 65, “many people have an image of aging that may be 20 years out of date,” said Richard M. Suzman, a director with the National Institute On Aging, in a Census Bureau release on age demographics. Same goes for many business technology organizations’ image of their users and customers.

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