Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Business Technology (BT): a better acronym for IT

George Colony, CEO of Forrester Research, has been on a one-man campaign to change the use of the term "information technology (IT)" to "business technology (BT)." I first heard Colony talk along this line earlier this year at Forrester's conference in Las Vegas. At the time, I didn't pay much attention, thinking that it was just another attempt by a consultant to give a new name to something old.

This time, however, I find myself more open to the idea. What we call the IT function today has already gone through a number of name changes, from data processing (DP) in the 1950s and 60s to electronic data processing (EDP) 70's, to MIS in the 1980s, to IT in the 1990s.

I'll date myself and admit that I'm old enough to remember each one of these acronym changes. Each reflected a change in thinking about our profession. DP was all about data--whether in the form of punched tape, cards, or mag tape. The transition to EDP reflected the shift from mechanical data (cards, paper tape, etc.) to electronic data. The rise of the acronym MIS reflected the view that our job was not just about data, but about information--and especially management information, information used to manage the business, including early forms of decision support and planning systems, such as MRP. Eventually, the acronym MIS fell out of use in favor of IS or IT, reflecting the realization that the information we managed was not just management information but all sorts of information.

But what all of these acronyms have in common is that they are centered on "data" or "information." Colony's point is that the job of IT today is not just about managing information. It is about supporting the business in all aspects--from managing information, to facilitating communication, to automating business processes, to enabling collaboration. It even involves digital communication with things, such as equipment, inventory items, and vehicles that are electronically enabled through technologies such as RFID.

Therefore, it is getting harder and harder to separate the business from the technology. In the late 1990s, the term "e-business" was popular, denoting a new way to do business--electronically. Today, though, no one really talks about e-business. It's just business.

I'm mixing Colony's thoughts here with my own. But putting it all together, it's clear that "IT" is no longer sufficient to describe what we expect from IT. A better term is Business Technology (BT), denoting simply the application of technology in business.

From CIO to CBT
If IT is now BT, then it follows that the Chief Information Officer (CIO) must be something new. Colony proposes Chief Business Technologist (CBT). A bit of a tongue-twister--I might suggest Chief Business Technology Officer (CBTO). Either way, the point is that this C-level officer of the organization is responsible for more than managing the information of the organization, and more than even the technology. He or she is responsible for ensuring that the technology is actually used to the benefit of the business and that the business is enabled by technology.

Interestingly, Colony made one point that I fully agree with and seldom have heard from others. He said that the CBT probably needs to come from a technology background, not a business background. The technology is too important to not have someone at the head of BT without a background in technology. Of course, the BT needs to be fully immersed in the business as well. But it is easier for one with a technology background to become immersed in the business than for one with a business background to become adequately immersed in technology.

Some companies, frustrated by the lack of business acumen in their IT groups, have transferred someone from the lines of business to the CIO position, hoping to bridge the communication gap that too often exists between IT and the business. But such a strategy only moves the communication gap, to a gap between the CIO and the IT organization. A better strategy is to develop today's CIOs to be truly CBTs or CBTOs, with knowledge and experience in both technology and business, responsible for ensuring the success of both.

Related posts
Marketing IT like a business
IT decisions that are too important to leave to the IT department
Escaping the ROI trap
Escaping the ROI Trap, Part 2


Anonymous said...

When I read this post I got a little bit scared. Not because I was thinking that I had to learn something about business in order to stay in the IT field (could be scary for some people). But, I thought for a minute that I had another senior moment and forgot that I had written something on a blog.

For people that have known me for a while I have been saying that I didn't like being considered an IT consultant because it doesn't accurately state what I do. For most of my clients I am the bridge between the business people and the IT people. So, I have been calling myself a Business Technologist. Not officially, as I didn't think people would know what that meant, but I have told many about this unofficial title.

I have one rub about this, though. I have met many people who think they perform this bridge work between business and IT, but they are not really prepared to do it. After all, we've all met CIO's that aren't really CIO's, but got there through attrition or just by staying around long enough. Maybe we can get the academic world to create a new degree (BS or BA?) in Business Technology.

I do agree with the idea that the IT trained person is better suited for becoming a BT. I started in this business as a FORTRAN and COBOL programmer (now I've dated myself, too). But, the IT person has to have a real interest in using technology to better a business, not just using technology. In my experience we are a rare breed.

Redhuan D. Oon said...

Its interesting to note that there are already college courses that are hybrid in nature and jobs too that requested for such BT personnel.

But still, I suspect many of those who migrated more towards regarding themselves as business-like rather than IT-like is the fact that the hardcore software part of IT is not everyone's cup of tea.

I, originally a COBOL programmer, been in IT-related business myself for 25 years that has held responsibilities covering pre-sales, vendor evaluation, business development and branding, has known many colleagues who aplogised for been non-technical and couldnt understand software.

Thus I see BT as more suited for them. As for me, somehow blessed with the ability to cut code, now in java, suddenly find myself not atuned to the business part of things, and would only handle that part when faced with a career decision.

That leads me to wonder if John Pellegrino is an even more rarer breed than he originally thought.

Anonymous said...

Thanks red1, I like being a rare breed.

Although I can still "cut code" this is limited to minor changes or debugging of code already created by people that spend 10 - 12 hours (or more) every day doing coding.

The good BT is able to take the business needs (not just requirements) and craft a solution considering all factors (time, dollars, simplicity, etc.). Then they can turn the solution into a specification that coders can work with.

After the solution is created they then can do first level testing before passing it on to the business people.

Coders appreciate someone that can "talk" their language and understand their limitations. That's why I think someone who has done it over the years is better suited for this BT role. There are plenty of business people, but the BT has to be the bridge between the 2.

Anonymous said...

I do agree that BT is more appropiate term to reflect the job nature of people to provide traditional "IT" services in business organisation, no matter in-house or external consulting.
I am an ERP consultant, which is, traditionally speaking, a IT work. But, in my daily work, I spend most of time on helping my client to resolve process or management change as adopting ERP system. Undoubtedly, it is not a "IT" work.
I also agree those BT should have certain "technical" experiences such as programming, configurating hardware and setting up networks. Those learning IT from business school usually just know the "theories", not really know how to make the technology works.

Bob Lieberman said...

I still don't see how the business technology function is supposed to grow beyond its traditional role as cost center providing necessary services.

If we've learned one thing in the fifty years since Frank (and I) started in the technology business, it's that technology creates value. The important word is "creates". I'm all for modernizing the scope and vision of the BT function. But unless its influence in the executive suite catches up with the value it creates, I don't think much will change – except that the job will get even harder.

A senior product manager or sales executive is seen as a rainmaker, because you can trace their value directly to the top (not the bottom) line. Somehow, the BT executive must join them on that pedestal.

It would be easy to say that he/she must earn a spot there. But fifty years of experience tells me it's not going to happen until they're also invited.