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IT and Your Body

April 11, 2010

The commonly accepted view is that IT is infrastructure. In this way the IT resources of an enterprise are imagined to be like electricity, running water and air conditioning. And if you believe this it’s not hard to conclude that IT, like most infrastructure, doesn’t really matter.

The commonly accepted view has always struck me as deeply wrong. The “IT as infrastructure” analogy doesn’t make sense from both a real-world, practical or theoretical perspective. And there’s a lot to be learned from examining why this analogy is inaccurate and why, in fact, IT matters more than ever.

It might be beneficial to compare and contrast the “IT as infrastructure” analogy to another analogy. An analogy that doesn’t assume the fundamental split between “The Business” and “IT” and one that corresponds more closely to the real world experience of IT.

A biological metaphor might work here. After all we want to emphasize the wholistic nature of an enterprise. I’ve likened IT to a muscle in the past. Muscles are certainly more important than “infrastructure” to an organism that needs to feed itself. And, combined with intelligence and external resources, they pretty much determine what an organism can and cannot do. And indeed, like real muscles, the more a business exercises IT the stronger and faster and more flexible it gets.

Or perhaps IT is more like the central nervous system. This would explain why firms with bad IT systems often seem to be so disoriented and confused. It also highlights the extremely important “connective” value of IT. Indeed the firms that have most successfully leveraged IT, from Walmart to Dell, all seem to have gained success by building a centralized information system, something that really connects the many disparate parts of the business.

Or maybe it’s like the kidneys. IT does a little bit of everything and has many important functions. But it’s a thankless endeavor because it’s also very well hidden — out of sight and out of mind — and so nobody ever worries about it until there’s a major emergency.

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