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The Intelligent Exploiter

Clive Holtham, Professor of Information Management at Cass Business School, is the man behind the recent publication of the Intelligent Exploiter framework. We asked him about the framework, and the opportunities it provides in the world of IT. Professor Clive Holtham is interviewed by Dr Martin Rich. Included is the transcript and a summary of the key points.

Summary of key points:

Clive Holtham, Professor of Information Management at Cass Business School, is the man behind the recent publication of the Intelligent Exploiter framework. We asked him about the framework, and the opportunities it provides in the world of IT. Key concepts included:

  • IT is not about boxes and wires, it is about information and knowledge, and how technology can transform and exploit these;
  • The framework has extended a model used in the building and construction industries to create a comprehensive plan for businesses and organisations;
  • Businesses do not benefit from technology, unless they are aware of how to deploy and exploit information and knowledge;
  • The mindset of businesses in IT is important in perceiving both problem and solution as a whole;
  • The IT industry is not stabilised, but ever-changing;
  • The rise of free and low cost technologies will dramatically enhance the ability of small businesses to get up-and-running quickly.

Q&A transcript:

Dr Rich:  What is the Intelligent Exploiter? And why is it so important to business?

Professor Holtham: Well, first of all, the Intelligent Exploiter framework, though it has been published in 2008/9, is really on the back of ten to 15 years worth of research here at Cass Business School. So it has not suddenly emerged in one year, it has cumulatively been developed.

Q: There are several components, can you just run through those for me please?

A: There are five components, if I just take each one in turn. The first component we call effective systems. We believe that at the heart of successful strategic use of IT lies a framework for developing systems suitably. But that framework is also dynamic, so in fact we run that framework through four phases: firstly, the development of effective systems; secondly, information management skills; thirdly, what we call business intelligence, which is really getting the benefit from the information; and, finally, business innovation. Not all organisations will go through all four of those phases of effective systems.

Q: The second of the components I have down as ICT strategy, can you tell me a bit about that?

A: This is one we have just developed this year in conjunction with Doug Stace from the Australian Graduate School of Management. What this is about is the overall strategic framework within which organisations conceptualise IT. And we have built this, in fact, on the Miles and Snow, which is quite an old model, actually 30 years old, developed in business strategy, and we have evolved that from the point of view of strategic ICT decisions.

Q: I think that is a really interesting point, because there is a lot of strategy in literature which comes from 20 or 30 years ago, and I think it is very interesting to have used some of that to find out how it relates to a rather different world where information technology is hugely important. The third component is to do with roles and skills, tell us a bit about that.

A: As far as roles and skills are concerned, we were looking at other areas that had suffered from the same problems of system breakdown that had been common in IT, and we essentially came across what had happened in the building and construction industries, where four clearly defined roles had emerged, of the developer, the architect, the builder and the user. And, really, we have simply extended that model, which has been very, very successful in building and construction, to the roles that are ideally needed in ICT.

Q: The fourth component is to do with information and knowledge ...

A: Really, at the end of the day, business benefit does not come from technology. It actually comes from the way that we deploy and exploit information and knowledge. And there have grown up a whole series of methods and ways of thinking about this which, quite frankly, have barely scratched the surface as far as business understanding is concerned, to the point where I would actually say that we have functional information and knowledge illiteracy in many organisations, paradoxically, at the very point where we have the greatest investment in technology that we have ever had in history.

Q: Why do you say knowledge and not just information? How did you separate the two?

A: Well information is what we need to keep a business running on a day-to-day basis. But, at the end of the day, if you look, for example, at innovation, at creativity, these are really based ultimately on knowledge, not simply the accumulation of information.

Q: And the fifth component which holds everything together, we call mindset?

A: Now this is really one of the biggest barriers that most organisations have got in getting value from IT. They might well have the right technology in place, they might well have project management procedures in place but, at the end of the day, if both the IT function and the business function do not have a mindset that is geared to exploiting and harnessing information and knowledge in particular, they stand little chance of getting out a full return on their ICT investment.

Q: What does that mindset mean in terms of managers understanding technology and understanding what they can do with it?

A: We think the number one issue in mindset is systemic thinking, the ability not simply to look at technology as a series of building blocks, but actually to conceive the overall problem, the overall solution and then, in an integrated kind of way, how you move towards solving the problem and achieving the solution.

Q: About five years ago there was a seminal article by Nicholas Carr in the Harvard Business Review which put forward the idea that, in his view, IT did not matter. I am just interested in your view on that statement?

A: Carr's was a very interesting article, it was very widely publicised, it spawned a series of books and controversies. His basic argument was that IT had become a commodity and, therefore, the crucial thing for most managers was to keep the cost of it down. Now, that is still valid in certain circumstances, but what Carr does not really understand, in my view, is that the pace of technological change is going to be immense and continue to be immense, certainly for the foreseeable future. So, whereas he compares IT to electricity or he compares it to railway transport, relatively those stabilised long ago, and we see no hint of that in IT. So, basically, we are going to continue to see, in IT, new technologies come along which overthrow or disrupt what went before. I think that Carr's idea that IT does not matter is fine if you are in a very stable environment, but does not play out if you have got the pace of change that we have got. The second thing that Carr underemphasises is that two organisations could implement the identical information technology, one, yet, could get immense business benefit from it, another might get no business benefit whatsoever. And that is really because of the way that the information knowledge is managed that comes out of the technology, and Carr places very, very little emphasis on this capability of the organisation to exploit information and knowledge which, to me, is what IT is primarily about. IT is not about boxes and wires, it is actually about information and knowledge and Carr plays down considerably, or ignores, the way in which information and knowledge need to be transformed through technology.

Q: Okay, in terms of getting a benefit, then, from IT now, what are the low-hanging themes? What should we look for now?

A: I think for some organisations, particularly smaller ones, the whole area of Web 2.0 offers tremendous possibilities. We have been working on a project recently which is a small project; there are five partners in the project. We were interviewed on a Monday, we were awarded the contract on the Tuesday and, by Wednesday morning, which is when the project officially started, we had already implemented two of our core pieces of technology for this system, a project management system and a Wiki. Within a further week, we had added to that other pieces of technology. So it is quite amazing now how you can use either free or very low cost technologies, especially for small organisations, to get projects started quickly, to start working together in virtual teams, and I think this is probably one of the most amazing developments really of the last three or four years.