FOR SOME REASON, many models for the future of the IT industry borrow parallels from the motor trade. Possibly this is down to the fact that much of IT is driven (pun completely accidental) by our friends across the pond.

Having sensibly nuked their public transport system some time back, they’ve attempted to turn all the freed up land into SUV parking space.

In any case, over the years such IT-automotive industry analogies have been offered as consolidation (there used to be hundreds of car companies now there is a handful of global giants); open systems (broadly interchangeable parts has created a bigger industry); and of course, one too many jokes about operating systems, cars, what if Microsoft, etc, etc.

Joking aside

Here’s a new one. In its survey of 300 US CIOs, IT Investing for High Performance, Accenture, while arguing that there’s a mismatch between spending and investing, presents this interesting conceit. From the outset, the Japanese motor manufacturers trounced their Detroit competitors not on cost – although they did produce a cheaper product – but with a ‘performance first’ strategy.

This eventually translated into systems that delivered cars that were also better. ‘Shortened production cycles did lower costs, but the relentless Japanese climb in US marketshare was founded on giving customers what they wanted, sooner,’ suggests the study.

While there is a general weakness with these IT-is-the-car-sector arguments – I suspect a better analogy would be based on telephony, there is something intriguing about this notion.

When dealing with users and customers IT leaders tend to struggle. Is the point of the service to support the rest of the organisation to do the everyday stuff very well? Or is it to sometimes lead the organisation by showing how technology can enable it do some things nimbler, quicker, cheaper – even new things?

Is this all about educating users to be self-sufficient, or is it to make IT transparent and effectively invisible? Is the ultimate end-goal to disappear, to become a wholly outsourced service? Or is it to become more prominent, to thrust technology higher into the mix and make CIO interchangeable with CFO and CMO? Don’t expect any answers by the end of this column. But if the Japanese car argument holds any water, it suggests that cost isn’t the end-game for the IT executive – it is performance and customer satisfaction.

This approach may result in some of those dialectical arguments getting dissolved.

This suggests 2006 priorities should not lie in further liquidising your asset base (finding yet more ways to do file and print for less money); nor in testosterone time-random spending (re-launching that dot-com service you toyed with in 1999).

"Japanese motor manufacturers trounced their Detroit competitors not on cost – although they did produce a cheaper product – but with a ‘performance first’ strategy"

Mind your business

Somewhere in-between may be the right path – judicious cost cutting which is balanced by timely investment.

Let’s face it, budgets depend heavily on unscientific things like company spirit, market sentiment and irrational exuberance (or lack of).

‘Aligning IT with business goals' in 2006 requires that CIOs key into the ‘mood’ of the times. Maybe that mood is that it is time to invest, as in spend more than last year, in technology.

Only this time, as opposed to all the other false dawns we’ve had since the onset of the IT ‘nuclear winter’, CIOs will deal with users and customers as stakeholders. Not as parents, enemies, guinea pigs or problems. We can but hope.

A final note of caution. IT is now much more exposed than it was last time, before Y2K that is. Outsourcing means visibility. What it all costs should be clear and outlined on the bill. I wonder what that will do to SLAs if the money goes up but performance doesn’t, Mr Service Provider?