The Days of Conservative IT Management Are Over

May 16, 2005

Scott Robinson

When I was a fledgling programmer, grinding out COBOL code on a machine with "370" in its name, I overheard my manager entertaining a Big Blue maintenance man.

"The successful manager," my boss was saying, "is the one who props up his feet and reads the paper every morning."

His rationale, of course, was that a competent manager has his shop well-ordered, running smoothly, calm and free of incidents, leaving him time for his paper.

When he said that, way back in Reagan's first term, he may have been right. But two decades later, while "well-ordered" is still desirable, "running smoothly" is a relative distinction at best; "calm" is only a state of mind; and "free of incident" describes a bygone age.

Today's IT

IT today is a volatile, competitive, unpredictable world. Technology now drives business, rather than the reverse. Software is fashion, hardware is evolution, where once it was the other way around. We are forced, by the marketplace and the pace of business process evolution, into an endless series of inevitable choices.

My former manager's conservative approach wouldn't fly today. IT is no longer a place for conservative management. A new paradigm rules, and it calls for new management traits:

Be progressive. When the rules of the IT game are changing year-in and year-out, no strategy or tactical advantage will serve you for very long. There's no play book you can rely on that won't be out of date 18 months from now. You've got to write a new one, and re-write it continuously.

But avoiding complacency is only the beginning. "Progressive" is an attitude, and it's bold and restless. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is outmoded thinking. If it ain't broke, it's going to be soon, under the assault of the competitive bludgeon.

The progressive manager is ahead of the game, already deep in thought about meeting next year's IT needs in new and better ways.

Be aggressive. My old manager was, by the nature of the business in those days, very reactive. He took a lot of phone calls. He'd go up the mountain to meet with the CEO and return bearing holy writ.

When I became a manager myself, I made a lot more calls than I took, and when I met with the CEO, the windows rattled. Times had changed, and my job was to badger and cajole and harass him into perpetual change, because that's what our industry demanded.

And even more so today. While IT is still about service, it's not enough to just respond. We must be agents of change, dynamic forces in constant confrontation with status quo.

It falls upon us to stimulate our organization's awareness of its own weaknesses; of the competition's technological advantages; of the possibilities, risks, and necessities of our own evolution. "Reactive" is passi; "proactive" is our mandate.

Be obsessive. I did some time in the world of research, and came to know a scientist or two. Funny thing about those guys. They preach endlessly that everything is tentative -- except their own ideas.

An IT manager today has to do better than that. In IT today, everything is tentative. There's no idea, no routine, no technology you can afford to cling to -- in five years, it could (and will) all change.

What can you do about this? You can resolve to learn -- and learn, and learn. Get in the habit of reading up on everything new: hardware, software, business processes, the economy -- everything!

Find out how they do things in Europe, or on the Pacific Rim. And don't just follow what the "Big Guys" are doing, read up on what the little guys are doing, too! In short, develop a new obsession -- learning what's new -- and indulge it lavishly.

Scott Robinson is an enterprise systems consultant with Quantumetrics, Inc., a consultant's collaborative. Robinson is presently working in distributed healthcare information systems with HCHB/Allegro IT, and has worked with such well known organizations as the Dept. of Defense (DOD), Dept. of Energy (DOE), Wal-Mart, and Roche Pharmaceuticals.

He is also a regular contributor to TechRepublic and can be reached at (812) 989-8173, or by email at


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