You can’t purchase innovation: It’s time we took back IT

accountant-funny2It’s conference season. I’ve spoken at several in the last month (poor mad fools) and my last one today was a key note to the local government infrastructure conference in Auckland. It was notionally about the Internet of Things, but I have a habit of drifting off into other areas, which I duly did.

It’s one of those things that has been on my mind for the last few weeks. Probably because I meet so many IT professionals in such a compressed time. As Cloud now makes it mark significantly on organisations and companies, the next waves of new technology are on the horizon, and the IT department is being swamped.

Worse, in government, they are being managed by accountants and as someone explained to me the other day, have been put into “hygiene mode.” A horrible term, I prefer “given a box of bandages and told to get back into the server room.”

A recent initiative underway between MBIE and CreativeHQ further added to the feeling of unease. MBIE wants to “buy” innovation in by engaging with entrepreneurs. Paying them (poorly in my opinion). Through the same contract wall managed by accountants that has stifled so much innovation already. While the sentiment is laudable, the method is likely to kill it before it gets started, and it’s unnecessary.

Enter the third thing that has been playing on my mind. In a keynote speech that I reblogged here, the presenter said:

There’s not a single idea I came into government with as a “private sector innovator” that someone inside of government hadn’t thought of before. And if the person that’s been there for 20 years, who knows all the policies and regulations and other barriers hasn’t gotten it done, then it’s likely I won’t either.

It’s absolutely true of everyone government agency that I was an employee of in my time. And most private organisations for that matter.

Here’s the question: How on earth did IT Professionals get relegated under “austerity” measures by accountants to cleaning up the IT “bathroom”(hygiene) rather than being given the freedom to do what it is that they started in IT to do, innovate, create, support, and make a difference?

Now I know, not everyone has, but for a lot of CIO’s and their teams, they find that their master is the CFO who often sees the IT department as a sunk cost and overhead rather than something that increases the productivity of an entire organisation through the service they provide. This is, in my opinion, narrow-minded thinking.

It is reminiscent of Kiwirail not repairing the rail bridge that links Gisborne and Napier. The cost to Kiwirail of repairing the bridge outweighed the economic benefit they would get back. Now, hundreds more heavy trucks clog the road and the regional Council, hospitals, and the NZTA are left to clean up the mess. Constructive thinking would say that by replacing the bridge, the amount of money saved across those other services would have more than paid for it.

Poor business planning often does things like taking the total amount of IT spend then dividing it by the number of users an organisations has, finally putting some arbitrary cost reduction on that total, and then enforcing it. The CIO is tasked with reducing budget while trying to meet the demands of an increasing mobile business in a technology world that is changing so fast that even we, the IT Professionals, struggle to keep up with it.

All the while, the executive demands that the CIO and the IT Group “show leadership.”

Maybe we should go back to the days of this… 

When I was talking to local government this week I came close to getting a standing ovation from a couple of people when I said that it was time we took IT back off the accountants.

The Internet of Things coupled with community engagement, in local government, is necessary and it reminds me of why I got into IT in the first place.

I love technology. I love the science fiction nature of it. It is literally, by some definitions, magic. When you can take your smartphone, hold it up, and see the way that Christchurch was before the earthquake. When you can access the global knowledge base that is Wikipedia. When you can watch your country live, from the international space station.

The Internet of Things for me, represents an entire new set of possibilities. In the hackathons we run, children and people with no IT skills are building sensors that monitor temperature, light, pollution, water levels, traffic, pedestrians, and a host of other everyday items. Even monitoring penguins.

I don’t know what the answer is, however I do know that when IT is treated as a bottom-line expense and we try to buy innovation in the same model that we can expect no different to what we have now.

Companies that follow this IT austerity model will eventually collapse. It stifles innovation, it salts the garden of ideas, and it drives away IT Professionals into companies that will provide that environment to experiment, innovate, and work with business leaders who see the value of IT on a global scale rather than a bottom line cost similar to toilet paper.

Government is swamped by this effect. Accountants, who absolutely have their place, are the new IT architects. A lot of All of Government and Common Capabilities (not all of them) are often built by accountants, procurement contractors, and lawyers. Not CIO’s, and certainly not IT professionals.

It’s time that we, the IT Professionals, remembered that we got in this to make a difference, not to balance someone’s else’s budget template.


  1. Any organisation that has the CIO reporting to the CFO immediately has 1) an insane situation, and 2) a CxO governance paradox. You’re “Chief of Nothing” in that scenario, and have a mislabeled employment title.

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