Yes, we do - very much.
Strassmann has the background it takes. His career includes service as chief information officer at General Foods, Kraft Corporation, Xerox, and more recently, the Department of Defense (he was awarded the Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, the Defense Department's highest civilian award, for his reengineering of the defense information infrastructure). Importantly for the present work, Strassmann also served a stint as vice president of strategic planning for the Information Products (office automation) Group at Xerox Corporation.
In a logical and straightforward manner bordering on the blunt, Strassmann makes his basic point - that "computerization has become the primary means for overhead reduction which results in diminished power for a large segment of the corporate bureaucracy." As such, the role of IS executive will have little to do with technology and everything to do with governance.
That's "governance" rather than politics in the usual sense of the word. "Managing information systems" Strassmann contends, "is primarily a matter of politics and only secondarily a matter of technology." Strassmann's "politics" has more in common with the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia than it does with mundane office intrigue. In fact, Strassmann's book recommends that corporations explicitly follow the model of the U.S. federal system, self-consciously negotiating the rules by which we will govern and regulate our access to and communication of information. That is, convene a company-wide "constitutional convention," establish a separation of powers amount IS, senior executives, departments and end users, and delineate "states" (departmental) rights. To support this perspective, we are treated first to an overview of the definitions and operation of governance, in the corporate context. This section provides an understanding of the basics; policy, information management, delegation, leadership, conflict resolution; and, relatedly, federation and the U.S. constitutional model. These are the issues of governance, be it of a company or a country. Next, Strassmann drops down from the 50,000-foot level to provide us with some grounding in real-world cases chosen from his broad experience. Drawing analogies to the cold war and the history of the World, the book clearly elucidates the cultural battle lines over which we have all struggled, providing a broader context for understanding and action in the corporate arena. He states,
"In many respects, the insertion of computers into the industrial-age organization is analogous to the introduction of firearms into the feudal fiefdoms. Cannons, once seen as a means fro strengthening the power of feudal sovereigns, turned out to be the means for accelerating their demise."
Of particular interest is Strassmann's chapter on reengineering (although, in reality, the entire book orbits, at times only implicitly, around the mass of reengineering that currently dominates business systems applications). He deftly and logically takes us through the historical and philosophical antecedents of contemporary reengineering practice. The chapter distinguishes what Strassmann sees as the self-destructive, dictatorial nature of the "Hammer" school of reengineering, from the true character of healthy, revolutionary change (as modeled by late eighteenth century political events in the U.S. and France).
Strassmann arrays the standard Hammer quotes in all their horrific efficiency: "On this journey we . . . shoot the dissenters;" ". . . the way you deal with resistance is . . . a bloody ax;" "What you do with the existing structure is nuke it!" "The last thing that reengineering does is to enhance the manager's sense of importance. Managing isn't important." Despite the cruel logic of the numbers - human resources are the most costly and least effective variable in the equation of business Strassmann makes a persuasive business case for the importance of morality, ethics and loyalty in fostering long-term success.
The next section of the book returns to the level of structure and definitions; this time not about corporate governance, but about individual leadership. Strassmann provides us with a context for the role and objectives of the CIO, emphasizing clear cost-reduction deliverables and railing against the distorted elevation of the image of the CIO. Strassmann's believes that the CIO has been seduced by the public relations hyperbole that has been created, in most cases by consultants eager to reshuffle management structures for hefty fees. He feels that the primary role of the CIO is to manage a strategic resource, not to reengineer the departments of corporate peers. In fact, the job of CIO, according to Strassmann, is really that of executive politician (in Strassmann's high- minded definition of the term) building support- and succeeding by fulfilling the needs of the organization, not by enforcing a rigid set of standards and procedures.
Having defined and explored leadership, Strassmann again grounds his logic with perhaps the largest of real world cases - the U.S. Department of Defense. As Director of Defense Information he presided over CIM (corporate information management), a massive, department-wide plan to migrate to standard (non-proprietary) systems and completely overhaul the software engineering and database development processes.
Of course, the story of the politics behind the CIM project is the true lesson here. Strassmann sharply draws the enthusiastic creativity at the start of the project as well as the petty frustrations and politically motivated budget cuts that resulted in a new systems infrastructure that was much smaller than originally planned and which eventually devolved mainly to a "policy of drastically cutting inefficient operating expenses." Strassmann pulls no punches. He is totally unconcerned about pointing to his own proposals for taming the bureaucracy - or to the shortsightedness of those who did not accept his advice. Strange thing, though no one has ever challenged the $26 billion savings (over seven years) that won him his medal. Strassmann's analysis is clear and unemotional and, as such we feel confident that his lessons will be relevant, not just self-serving spin control. In the final part of this sweeping work, Strassmann takes on the barriers to a healthy, logical corporate politics: fear of politics, putting technology before politics, and a variety of maladaptive corporate governance models, such as technocratic utopianism ("no details; no costs; just generalities"), anarchy ("everyone for themselves"), monarchy ("pay allegiance to the dictator") and feudalism ("business unit computing autonomy") are all exposed as ineffective or worse. Finally, Strassmann presents his concept of corporate "federalism." Similar to our own balance of power between state and national governments, federalism in the corporate context fits our decentralized corporate structures and distributed information systems perfectly. Corporate federalism requires a great deal of trust and cooperation among co-workers - not exactly the conditions we find in contemporary business. Toward the end of the book, Strassmann explains:
"My opposition to the more radical and drastic forms of reengineering comes from a recognition that even though wholesale dismissals may deliver short term economic gains, the intrusion of fear and dictatorial practices will tear apart the social bonds among people that are prerequisite for cooperation based on negotiated compromise. Organizations that aspire to federated forms of management must sustain mutual trust."
This is an aggressive and intelligent treatment of a huge subject. Strassmann provides us with both the structure and the functioning of the way we organize to administer information. (Strassmann even provides us with a hilarious, tongue-in-cheek glossary, e.g., "Business Reengineering: A process to involve employees in recommending how to dispense with themselves" or "Macintosh: Name of a fruit, copied by a computer company that copied a computer design from a company that made good copies but could not sell originals.") Defining the corporate information function in the broadest historical, political, philosophical and management context, and providing significant - and personally experienced - case examples, all in one volume, is quite an accomplishment. To also find it readable, amusing and so eminently clearheaded is a rare find indeed.