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Culture

The rise and fall of IT

Forrester CEO George Colony says a simple change would convey the fact that business is technology and technology is business.

    A little history: The discipline of running computers in large companies was once called "data processing." The name made sense because it was all about mainframe computers spitting out piles of green-bar paper inscribed with numbers.

    As word processors, personal computers, mini-computers and other interlopers came on the scene in the early 1980s, the DP term was dropped in favor of "management information systems." In the early 1990s, the cool new term became "information technology." This moniker in no way conveyed the explosion of the Web, mobile devices, mobile phones, e-mail and e-commerce that techies were called on to manage--but it stuck.

    In the old days of DP, MIS and IT, the use of computers in companies was about tracking the business. Computers provided a retrospective snap shot (think financials or sales records) but were not used to actively operate the business--for example, developing products, selling, manufacturing or touching the customer.

    If you are the head of IT, you are no better than a glorified librarian, dispensing information.

    With the advent of the Web, there is now a wire from every company to every customer. Technology pervades most aspects of the business. Disagree with me? Do the scream test: Walk around your company and pull out all of the plugs from the wall. Take it all down. Then listen for the high-pitched wail from employees who can't do their work--who can't service customers, can't sell, can't develop, can't collaborate. My bet is that your company will lose millions of dollars an hour without technology. If you're like Goldman Sachs or Barclays Bank, you'll lose hundreds of millions of dollars an hour.

    So here's the punch line: IT is no longer an appropriate term for the gear, the discipline of running the gear, or the industry. I propose that we replace it with the term "business technology," or BT. This conveys the fact that business is technology and technology is business.

    Who cares? Why would I waste my time and yours in a renaming exercise? Because the job has changed, and it's time to acknowledge that fact. New job, new expectations, new name. If you are the head of IT, you are no better than a glorified librarian, dispensing information. In contrast, if you are the head of BT, you are shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow executives who are running the operation. You're focused on improving process and finding new sources of revenue. You apply technology for business results, not as a way to create information of questionable value.

    As the people who run BT, techies are forced to engage in a discussion of process, customers and operations, not esoteric references to SOA, Web services and storage management. The CEO and executive team get the message that the BT function can be a legitimate partner in driving revenue, profit and market share.

    Once IT becomes BT, what are we going to call the CIO? Ditch "information" and go to "chief business technologist" (CBT). Will the term BT work for government? The argument might be, "Hey, I like it, but I work for the federal government, which is not a business." But according to Dictionary.com, the definition of business is "a specific occupation or pursuit." The business of the Internal Revenue Service in the U.S. is to collect taxes--and it can use business technology to do that more efficiently (God forbid).

    To summarize: The function in large companies that manages computers and networks is now business technology. The industry is now renamed BT, as in, "The largest software company in the BT industry is Microsoft." And the equipment (the computers, storage, software, networks, and so on) is now covered by the term "BT systems," as in, "We have great BT systems at our company."

    I may be tilting at windmills, but as of this moment, I'm going on a campaign to dump IT in favor of BT. Hey, I'd love to have you join the cause.