Executive Suite: Counting our IT blessings

Mimi Browning

Despite the hardships caused by the war in Iraq, the devastation from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the prospect of higher-than-usual winter energy prices, those of us in the IT business can count our blessings this Thanksgiving. IT is a wealth-generating profession that manages to retain an almost divine status in today's partisan and divided world.

However, one measure necessary to assure sustained IT progress is the cultivation and acceptance of more nontraditional IT leaders.

IT continues to be a global growth engine. In March 2005, the World Economic Forum's Global Information Technology Report assessed the impact of information and communication technology on the development and competitiveness of nations. This annual report evaluated various IT factors in developing a network-readiness index for over 100 nations. Those factors included regulatory and legal frameworks; infrastructure; investments and competition; the quality of scientific and academic institutions; and the networked readiness of individuals, businesses and governments.

Not surprisingly, there is a link between investment in IT and a nation's overall productivity and wealth. Thus, the top five ranked nations, in order, are Singapore, Iceland, Finland, Denmark and the United States. Most encouraging, the trend over the last four years confirms a narrowing of the digital divide between the most and least developed nations. IT is clearly a global stabilizer. If peace breaks out, we may wish to thank IT, not diplomacy or the altruism of humankind.

Coupled with its wealth-generating ability, IT has imbued itself with a nonpolitical nature. For over half a century, IT has ducked most of the pitfalls of politics, whether American or global in nature. There are exceptions. Old-style communist leaders of the past banned computers and printers, and blocked access to the Internet, fearful that their citizens would learn another truth. Today, IT-related economic issues such as outsourcing, software copyrights, and government regulations and policies are part of world debates, but they are not hindering progress.

Interestingly, the inherent goodness of IT has led to a dearth of IT-related scandals. Aside from the occasional government agency information systems overrun and the related congressional committee outrage (typically a Page-18 article at best), IT scandals are rare compared with corporate, congressional or celebrity brouhahas. Not having this political drag provides IT with extra freedom to experiment and flourish.

To assure the continued progress of IT, its leaders need to adapt to emerging needs. In the early days of IT, traditional charismatic, command-and-control leaders dominated the business. Their leadership styles were effective in creating and enforcing the technology standards needed to connect equipment and communicate information. These IT czars often provided a strong counterbalance to business managers skeptical about the value of IT.

Today's networked world produces constant change and generates exceedingly complex issues in areas such as environment, health and transportation. The world's citizens are adapting; they understand the power and limits of IT and will forego individual technology pets to obtain enterprise connectivity and information flow. IT leaders, too, must adapt. The best ones are boundary spanners and consensus builders. They understand their responsibilities'to assure that IT continues to produce wealth and results, and to groom a more diverse next-generation of IT leaders. This will be done not with the sword of a dictator but with the baton of a collaborative orchestrator.

Mimi Browning, a former Army senior executive, is a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc. of McLean, Va. She can be reached at browning_miriam@bah.com

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