Living in Chicago, I am influenced by two native musical traditions: rhythm and blues, and jazz.
Rhythm and blues is the profoundly simple yet powerful music that blends a steady bass rhythm with a flourish of higher notes, usually delivered by guitar and a singer's voice. The steady bass rhythm connects me to the music, while the flourish of higher notes leads me on a voyage to compelling places. Wow!
In jazz, musicians explore a musical space freely, blending their individual contributions into the piece of music they are creating together.
I see something of each of these traditions in running an IT operation, whether it is a single project or a whole department. The steady, reliable bass beat of rhythm and blues is analogous to what they call 'dial tone' in telecoms, that steady hum of behind-the-scenes activity that keeps users connected to systems. The bass beat of IT comes from folks who follow a highly disciplined process of keeping hardware, software and communications up and running 24 hours a day.
As with rhythm and blues, it's the flourishes that are memorable. In the case of IT, the flourishes are the business applications, which deliver the results people desire from technology. Rhythm and blues doesn't really work if the bass line falters or the flourishes don't soar and thrill the listener. In IT, we need to keep the pulse of that bass line while finding ways to focus most of our energy on creating business applications that people really like.
After all, it's only through enthusiastic and effective use of the right bundle of business applications that companies will reach the destinations they seek.
Outsourcing much of the activity involved in creating the bass beat is a good idea because there's such a large degree of commonality in creating that beat from one company to the next. Companies are best served by focusing on developing in-house talent that really understands its unique needs and can deliver the appropriate bundle of business applications to fit the business situation as it evolves.
Some companies try to outsource the flourishes of higher notes, too. They choose their favourite flourishes from among a limited selection (the top ERP packages, the top CRM packages, the top supply-chain packages) and leave it at that. But they wind up living in a Top 40 pop world, sounding like everybody else. I'll take the power of rhythm and blues, where the best musicians always tailor the higher notes (depending on audience and mood) to meet the needs of the moment.
As for jazz, every jazz musician must master a set of techniques and then use those techniques to bring out the strengths of his chosen instrument. First one musician leads and the others follow, then the lead passes to another.
Mastery of technique allows the musicians to go in many different directions with a piece of music. This is also what good IT groups in any organisation do. Using the infrastructure and tools they have available, they support and enable their company to go in different directions as business environments change.
Effective IT operations are composed of people who know how to combine their individual contributions into the unique blend of systems that a company needs in order to prosper. They are blends of people providing outsourced capabilities and in-house talent who follow a process of working together to make powerful music.
Michael H. Hugos is the author of 'Building the Real-Time Enterprise: An Executive Briefing' (John Wiley & Sons, 2004).