IT: 'information technology' or 'ivory tower'?

You rarely hear the words ‘government’ and ‘IT’ without the word ‘disaster’. On one hand, this isn’t fair: successful projects just aren’t newsworthy, and don’t receive any coverage. But on the other, when millions of pounds are thrown at a project that just doesn’t deliver, for whatever reason, it’s absolutely fair to make a fuss about it.
For perfectly natural reasons, this makes the average IT middle-manager a cautious creature. Many of them are long-serving ex-programmers, from days long before email and the web arrived on the average office desktop. They probably have one eye at least on their retirement, and don’t want to do anything to put their pension at risk. Doing nothing – including preventing others doing anything – has much less (direct) risk than actually doing something, especially if your retirement date is fast approaching.
But with each new twenty-something their organisation recruits, these middle-managers find themselves in increasingly difficult positions. Today’s graduates will have difficulty remembering a time before the web; it’s second nature to them. They bring hands-on experience and insight which the middle-managers often can’t match.
The fun really starts when the best ideas begin to come from outside the IT department. Junior staff in front-line positions are in the best place to know what needs to be done, and may well have the skills to do it. All too often, the IT department clamps down, refusing to sanction or support any development that happens outside its boundaries. IT suddenly stands for ‘ivory tower’ rather than ‘information technology’.
Of course, this doesn’t stop the enterprising junior employee. They may well be able to develop their own solutions, or customise programs downloaded from the internet. They don’t necessarily need access to the IT department’s servers, with external server space so cheap. In the world of Web 2.0, it’s easy to imagine major new systems being built and launched with zero input from the IT department.
Innovation in isolation is not ideal, for many reasons; but often it’s the only way to break an organisation’s inertia, and get things moving. It’s much harder for the IT department to say ‘it can’t be done’ when you’ve built your own system which says ‘oh yes it can’.
IT departments need to recognise that their ‘guru status’ has gone. Retreating to an ivory tower, banning all unsanctioned efforts by Ministerial order, just won’t work. Increasing IT literacy on the front line needs to be seen as a positive benefit to the organisation, rather than a threat to the IT department which must be neutralised. The solution is more communication, not less.