Jeanne Ross: Leading the Adaptive Enterprise
By Terreece Clarke, October 24th, 2011

The 2011 TechTomorrow Conference with its focus on The Adaptive Enterprise: Leading in the Face of Change promises to be an exciting opportunity for IT leaders from around the country to collaborate and learn the tools they need to lead. IT Martini interviewed Jeanne W. Ross - Director and Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School's Center for Information Systems Research and one of the conference's keynote speakers.

Ross's research examines organizational and performance implications of enterprise initiatives related to enterprise architecture, IT governance, outsourcing, and business agility. Her work has appeared in major practitioner and academic journals, including Sloan Management Review, Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal, MISQ Executive, MIS Quarterly, the Journal of Management Information Systems, IBM Systems Journal, and CIO Magazine.

She is also the coauthor of three books: IT Governance: How Top Performers Manage IT Decision Rights for Superior Results, Enterprise Architecture as Strategy: Creating a Foundation for Business Execution and IT Savvy: What Top Executives Must Know to Go from Pain to Gain.

ITM: You are charged with speaking to the challenges and opportunities facing companies in the area of technology. Can you describe one less talked about challenge\opportunity for companies? What's one thing companies should be aware of that is not making headlines?

ROSS: I think the challenge/opportunity that people are not talking about that is essential for success is the extent to which individuals on the front-line need constant coaching to use electronic information and address business rules effectively. The opportunities presented by IT are all about helping people work more effectively and yet most companies are under-investing in their people. Managers of operating level employees need to be schooled in how to coach, that is, how to help people day in and day out understand the data at their fingertips and how they can use it more effectively. They (or better yet, their systems) also need to provide operating level employees with daily or real-time feedback on how they’re doing. There should be no secrets. Everyone should know who the top performers are and the numbers that prove it. Then those who need help will recognize they need it and can seek it out.

The problem starts at the top. Expectations for operating level employees and what they need to succeed is often not viewed as strategic. But these are the people who close the deal. If we don’t give these people the information they need and the business rules that tell them what to do with it and the coaching that helps them do it well, our systems won’t generate much value.

ITM: Several years ago you were the principle researcher for the article "Six IT Decisions Your IT People Shouldn't Make." Have you seen a shift in the way senior management approach those same critical IT decisions?

ROSS: I do think that senior executives are taking more ownership for decisions like how much should we spend on IT, but I think they are still generally reluctant to think about strategy in operational terms. If firms want to use IT strategically, senior executives must be able to articulate how the firm will operate—what will be standardized globally, locally, etc. Senior executives often focus on traditional strategy (organic vs acquisitive; market decisions, product line decisions) and reduce their oversight to annual plans that focus on short-term financial performance. Once a system is built, it will be around a long time. To use systems effectively, management must think about the processes and capabilities that they’ll need for a long time. Short-term thinking is counter-productive to the strategic use of IT. At most firms, senior executive thinking remains the greatest impediment to the effective use of IT.

ITM: In a recent interview you say, "IT needs to be included from the very beginning in discussions and decisions concerning an organization’s core business, business model, business plan, plan implementation, core processes, etc." (Blogging About Business, June 13th, 2011) How does this help with business agility?

ROSS: If IT is included early in discussions, and if IT leaders are really good, they will keep management decisions focused on what is core, what capabilities matter, what can be reused, and how the firm can build on its success. As one chief architect described it, “we provide the rudder for the company—without us, business leaders would just pursue the flavor of the day.” This improves agility through reuse and better use of management bandwidth. There are all kinds of decisions that don’t need to be addressed every day because they’ve been settled. Management (and IT) can focus on what’s new.

ITM: You co-wrote Enterprise Architecture as Strategy: Creating a Foundation for Business Execution with Peter Weill and David C. Robertson. What has been the most interesting bit of commentary/feedback you've received since the book was released?

ROSS: Well, the most interesting bit of commentary is the statement that people read the book and then just did what we said. I didn’t think it would be that easy. Honestly, I thought enterprise architecture was really hard. But smaller companies are navigating the four stages of architecture maturity in a couple years. I didn’t see that coming.

I’m also struck by how the book continues to be read and used. It’s still difficult, of course, to get non-IT people to read it. So one of the biggest challenges IT people face is in evangelizing about architecture to their business leaders. Sometimes, it’s best not to use the term architecture, but business leaders need to think about standardization, integration and capabilities, regardless of the terminology, and sometimes, they’d rather not. The most disturbing part about the fallout from the book, and I should have seen this coming, is that EA is making firms considerably more efficient, and the downside in this economy is that they don’t need as many people.

ITM: Let's have a little fun. You are a highly regarded speaker and presenter. Worse case scenario - you arrive to a conference and they are having tech trouble, which is worse - loss of lights or loss of A/V equipment? Why?

ROSS: Loss of lights. If I can’t see the audience’s eyes, I have no idea if what I’m saying is resonating (this happens when the light on me is too bright, not just when the lights don’t work). Without AV, we can still tell stories and discuss their experiences. No light and I feel like I’m talking to myself. I tend not to find myself all that interesting for very long.

You can learn more from Jeanne W. Ross about how leaders can embrace technology for their strategic advantage at the TechTomorrow Conference October 26 - 27, 2011 at The Ohio Student Union on the beautiful campus of The Ohio State University. You can visit with the conference leaders at IT Martini 20: Tech After Tomorrow reception following the conference, with six competing start-ups, TechTomorrow Conference Retrospective and live broadcast of the Digital 411 internet radio show.