What Shifting IT/Business Battle Lines Mean for BI's Future

Line-of-business analysts are advancing on IT's old territory. Five thoughts on what it means for both parties.

Talk of a shifting front line between IT and business has been in the air for years. Just recently, though, I heard a clue that things had progressed more than I had assumed.

Blake Johnson, the Stanford University professor who studies data analysts, said to me, "I don't even know what IT is anymore." He sees data analysts usurping ground that IT once took for granted. I wondered if other front-line observers felt the same, and from there wanted to gaze over the horizon.

Naturally, specific situations vary. Johnson was talking about what he hopes is a new wave of analysts: competent to assume many traditional IT skills yet also comfortable interpreting business strategy for decision makers.

Dave Wells has a broader view after more than 35 years' of IT experience. Much of his work is helping shape cultural and organizational shifts. "I'd say [Johnson] is pretty much on target," he told me.

IT hasn't changed much, Wells says, but business has simply by taking things into their own hands. Instead of annoyance (the old business reaction to IT), business users say, "'I'm not going to get anything from [IT]. I better help myself.'" They find their own solutions and develop their own competencies. A client in retail jewelry and one in mortgage lending, for example, recently had Wells teach data skills to business analysts.

Reactions from IT? Wells believes that IT simply doesn't want to understand what the business users need. Business is more complex than IT and seldom has "right answers." The answers that include phrases such as "it depends," and the answers that were right one day but wrong the next, are uncomfortable for those who're drawn to IT work.

It's another sign toward what he's been saying for several years now: Over the next five or 10 years, IT departments as we know them will disappear as IT work integrates into lines-of-business -- and IT workers march differently. He says, "The separate IT organization makes less and less sense as business becomes more technology dependent."

At least in the short run, is this shift good news for business? According to Baseline Consulting co-founder and front-line expert Jill Dyché, maybe not. "The good news is that lines of business are more BI-savvy than ever," she wrote to me via e-mail. "The bad news is that lines of business are more BI-savvy than ever."

Lines of business are, indeed, assuming new IT responsibilities, she noted, whether it's through "political land grabs or bona fide business drivers."

The problem for now is disruption. She continues, "Who owns the data warehouse? Who owns heretofore enterprise-class BI applications, like customer dashboards? Who maintains the BI portfolio if the applications become as dispersed as the people who use them?"

As usual, the real questions don't end with technology. They reach into the organization -- which is again the good news and the bad news.

I couldn't help but put on my forecaster's hat to see how it all might shake out.

The CIO/CTO looks like the CFO. Dave Wells's scenario seems likely: The new CTO will evolve into a consultant, much like today's CFO, who advises and may veto but doesn't command. The power over data and tools will be in business. As for the legendary animosity between line-of-business and IT, that's already faded in many organizations, reports Wells. "Business has moved past that." If any lingers, it's because IT still has a budget while business does much of its own work now.

For analytical heft, business units will turn to a group of expert analysts. This elite, mobile, and well-funded group of shadow analysts will stand ready to help. In fact, their understanding of the organization may rival that of the executives and mid-managers they serve. Depending on the organization's culture, or the group's culture, they'll be either an aid or a threat.

"Good enough" will be the rule for everyday analysis. The average user will be roughly as good at data analysis as typing. Today, everyone has mastered the keyboard, whether they touch type or hunt and peck. Automatic data monitors will weed out gross errors the way a spell-checking feature corrects spelling. Where the careless "you-know-what-I-mean" style of spelling seeps into data and escapes the data checker, something like Lyzasoft's "mesh trust" will be the final arbiter. That is, if your data and methods aren't good enough, you're out.

Unforeseeable benefits will accrue from getting dirty with data. In a 2006 essay The Power of the Marginal, venture capitalist and author of Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age (2004; O'Reilly) Paul Graham argues for dealing directly with your medium. "Blow your own glass, edit your own films, stage your own plays." He might have added "analyze your own data." He continues, "And in the process pay close attention to accidents and to new ideas you have on the fly." This is how people learn from their medium and also find an edge over those who delegate. Also, how do amateurs know when they're on the right path? One clue, writes Graham, is when experts say they're unqualified.

With all that to talk about, perhaps the BI industry can give "big data" a rest.

Ted Cuzzillo is an industry analyst and journalist with more than 20 years' experience explaining, analyzing, and researching how people use technology. To paraphrase Lance Armstrong, who says "It's not about the bike," Ted says, "It's not about the computer." His current research focuses on business analysts, including the tools they use, the roles they play, and their careers. He can be reached at analysts@datadoodle.com.