The New IT Role: From Problem Solving to Opportunity Creation


I was talking with a colleague yesterday about the ways IT management consulting has changed over the last couple of years.  On reflection, the changes for IT management consulting mirror in many ways the changes in the role of IT – at least as far as the more mature business-IT environments are concerned.

For many years, IT specialists inside large businesses and agencies (i.e, I’m not talking about companies who’s business is IT) have pursued a role of problem solver.  “Too much slack in the supply chain?  We can help you re-engineer the business process, enable it with slick supply chain software, and problem solved!”  “Too hard to make meaning of all the transaction data that gets generated every day?  We can build at data warehouse and provide sophisticated data analysis tools to help you make better, more informed decisions.”  “Losing track of inventory?  We can put bar codes or RFID tags on goods, and use a tracking system to keep an accurate record of where stuff is.”  You have a problem – the IT organization will help you analyze it, determine root causes, then design and implement a solution.  It’s been a worthy role for years, and the results, more often than not, are successful.

Note how similar this is to the role of the IT management consultant – for years, we’ve been brought in when there’s a problem the CIO needs help solving.  But over the last few years, that has been changing.  My hypothesis is this:  Most of the traditional IT management problems have been solved, or, at least, the CIO and her team have solved similar problems before, and feel qualified to solve them for themselves.Let’s translate than from IT management consultant and the CIO team, to the CIO team and their business partners.  I think similar forces prevail.  The big problems have either been solved, or at least the tools and disciplines of 6 Sigma, business process re-engineering, and other problem solving methods are now reasonably well known, and have become relatively routine.

So, what’s a poor IT management consultant to do?  More to the point (for readers of this blog) what’s an IT professional to do?  I believe the cutting edge of information technology today, with Web 2.0, Cloud Computing, and the evolving convergence between the consumer space and enterprise computing has shifted the paradigm for the IT professional from problem solving to opportunity identification and exploitation.  This may seem like a subtle, semantic shift, but I think it is more profound and impacts the competencies IT pros need to be successful, and the way they see and operationalize their role and relationships with their business partners.  Let’s consider some of the differences between problem solving and opportunity finding:

  • Problems tend to be brought to you (to map back to the IT management consulting analogy, the problems often come to you via a Request for Proposal), whereas you have to go find opportunities.
  • When people bring you problems to solve, they are hoping for a solution (even though sometimes the ‘be careful what you wish for’ adage applies!)  When you find an opportunity, you might have a very hard time selling your business partner on something they weren’t looking for in the first place and that does not solve a recognized problem.
  • The tools used for problem solving are quite different from those used for opportunity identification.  You might be a master black belt in quality improvement, but not know how to be an effective innovator.
  • The solutions available for problem solving are often ‘off the shelf’ while those required to exploit new opportunities may need to be either invented or at least ‘mashed up’ from component pieces.
  • The skills needed for problem solving (e.g., analysis, design) are different from those required for opportunity creation (e.g., synthesis, innovation, persuasion).
  • The relationships involved in problem solving are quite different from those involved in opportunity identification.  Think about your own relationships with the plumber or car repair shop compared to those with a personal training coach or travel adviser.  I don’t care how little the plumber knows about me as a person – I just want the leak fixed quickly, efficiently, and without getting ripped off.  But I do want my travel adviser to know enough about me to point me to the kind of vacation I’m going to really love and benefit from.

I think this type of role shift for the IT professional relates back to several earlier posts. (Forgive me for referring back to my own posts, but I believe that looking for patterns and connections is important to understanding the changes in the world around us and to opportunity identification.)  For example, in IT Pros – What Will Become of Them I talked about the risk of the old-style ‘business analyst’ becoming a dinosaur.  In Financial Forensics as a Clue to Dysfunctional IT I referenced IT funding as often driving dysfunctional behavior.  In fact, IT funding is often set up for the problem solving paradigm – i.e., funds are made available once a problem has been identified.  As you shift to opportunity identification, it becomes hard, if not impossible, to get the funding needed to pursue opportunities.  In my post Some Suggestions for a CIO 2.0 I talked about the shift in a Web 2.0 world from “the business problem to be solved” to the “potential opportunities to surface”; from “projects to be framed out” to “experiments to find and stimulate, communities to seed”; and from “deliverables to be created” to “behaviors to be fostered.”

So, are you operating primarily as a problem solver or an opportunity creator?  Are you helping innovate products, processes and services, or simply helping take the kinks out of them?  Are you helping grow the business top line, and perhaps creating new revenue streams, or helping improve the bottom line by taking out costs?

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