A Great Read: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology

 Bob Lewis is one of the most practical and entertaining advisors in the IT world. His expertise spans more than 20 years, seven books and more than 650 columns – each helping modern executives effectively address the technology based issues facing their companies.

Mr. Lewis’ latest effort, A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, is a terrific book for anyone trying to make a real impact within an organization and will become the gold standard for IT professionals trying to make their systems perform business functions. He provides practical insights for real impact by taking on flawed conventional wisdom; encouraging us all to be courageous in a smart way; and reminding us that everything happens through people.

Most of us work very hard to make sure our areas of responsibility serve our customers and happen as efficiently as possible. We want to make sure that the people who rely on our work are satisfied with our efforts and that we deliver as efficiently as possible. We want to do a good job. Lewis points out that traditional approaches have fundamental flaws in their assumptions. Operations set up to serve “internal customers” miss the point. The organization’s purpose is to serve real customers and internal functions must be aligned in order to make that happen effectively and efficiently.

Traditional management and measurement systems create happy islands. Individual operations within the organization serve their internal customers and focus on delivering efficiently. These happy islands may deliver on their goals while the organization struggles to reach its goals. Lewis illustrates this phenomenon with a factory example where the CEO tells the leaders of his functional areas to maximize their efficiency and profitability. Sales and Marketing sells profitable contracts. The Supply Chain delivers raw materials at the lowest possible cost. Manufacturing produces at maximum efficiency. Distribution delivers efficiently. To make a long story short, everyone is happy, but the customer receives large quantities of product at the wrong time; finished product is either out-of-stock or overstocked; and raw material inventory reaches record levels. None of the executives wants to jeopardize their bonus by making their function inefficient. The story demonstrates the need to suboptimize individual operations in order to make the entire organization efficient and effective.

Lewis points out that these heuristics break down because it is almost always necessary for individual units to operate at less than peak efficiency in order for the organization to thrive; and that focus on internal customers sacrifices overall efficiency and coordination in order to maximize internal satisfaction on individual projects. Instead, the organization should use a strong focus on the external customer in order to coordinate efforts and effectively position the organization in the market.

Attacking these issues in non-traditional ways requires intelligent courage. Lewis introduces an extremely useful way to insure that these initiatives stay on track and gather the support they need. He posits that we should manage East, West, North, and South within the organization. East refers to establishing relationships with our peers, understanding their needs and building alliances in order to making new initiatives effective. To the West is how we satisfy the people who rely on what you do. North is how we manage and align with our bosses and their needs. Finally, South is the reverse of North: how we deal with the reflective faces reporting to us. Lewis provides the practical tools for making the most of people in each direction, enabling us all to move forward with intelligent courage.

The usual books would stop here, providing the theories and activities that can make you and your organization more effective. Instead, Lewis forcefully and correctly makes the point that all results and all change happens through people. Using involvement strategies is not just a nice thing to do; it’s also a powerful business strategy. He emphasizes how difficult and critical it is for leaders to communicate and engage people in everyday operations and ongoing initiatives. Leaders almost always underestimate the time and effort needed to effectively communicate with everyone in their organizations. Instead of having a united vision of the future, the organization fills the communication gaps with their own interpretations, leaving a disjointed picture of needed actions, hindering the ability to coordinate action.

A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology lays out a powerful framework for transforming IT and changing organizations. Bob Lewis does a terrific job of encouraging all of us to challenge flawed conventional wisdom; move forward with intelligent courage; and engage the people around us to make a meaningful difference in our organizations.

It’s a terrific read for all of us making a difference in today’s organizations.


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