Every IT department should hire a designer

One of my favorite business books is “The Ecology of Commerce” by Paul Hawken. It’s widely lauded as a pillar of business ethics and environmental stewardship, but to me, it’s really a book about design.

I’m a design geek at heart. I’m not very good at the aesthetic aspects of it, but I enjoy all different flavors of design: industrial, architectural, graphic, technological, etc.  Because the root of design is problem solving and reading authors like Hawkin and Buckminster Fuller gets me thinking about problems systemically.

What are the inputs, the outputs, the unintended consequences, the constraints? What variables do I need to keep in balance? What can be sacrificed or excluded to improve the whole?  What is the ideal compromise?

I do my best to bring these questions to everything I do in IT.

All that may sound a little high-minded and fancy – when someone talks about design, people tend to think of Jon Ivey waxing poetic about the chamfered edges on the latest iPhone, but I’ve found approaching IT through the eyes of design to be exceedingly practical.

If you’re thinking about the whole system you’re plugging into (the technology, the business, the world), you’re forced into making hard decisions and have to re-examine your solutions and ideas, usually for the better. You have to learn how to compromise.

You’re driven to murder your lovelies and stifle your ego. That awesome idea you had that you are super emotionally vested in may really be awesome in a vacuum, but it may be terrible when applied to a real system and the thousand things you didn’t think of when you first wrote it down.

But the biggest benefit that comes from this type of systemic thinking is a holistic vantage point. IT departments are in a unique position, given that technology might touch every area of a business, to provide a comprehensive view of how different processes and departments intertwine. And if they’re doing their job right and the business trusts them, they’re using that understanding to provide insight and solutions.

As technology becomes more and more abstracted from IT staff and the business as a whole – the further we get from the metal – our job increasingly becomes one of analysis and consultation. That change reinforces that the point of IT has never really been technology, it’s been information and enablement. That’s hard to see if you’re approaching IT purely with your engineering hat on.

In Lego terms, it’s less about adding pieces and more about making sure everyone understands how the existing blocks fit together. It’s studying and reporting on the ecology of a business. That’s where the interesting problems are and where IT can provide value, not whatever someone is blathering about in CIO Magazine this week.

Image credit: Mathias Ripp