What the 2015 Pan Am Games torch relay could teach IT departments

As the open ceremonies begin, “following the flame” is a good metaphor to describe the way technology leadership is changing

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Image: Allstream CEO Jay Forbes (left) and president Mike Strople.

The other day a friend of mine on Facebook posted a picture of her young son, who was grinning as he held a handmade torch in the air.

“Nice work buddy!” her husband said, according to her status update. “Are you being a Pan Am torch bearer?”

“No,” he said, “I’m starting up an angry mob!”

I laughed, but the picture was also a good reminder of the dual nature of a torch, both literally and as a metaphor for enterprise IT. Fire can be both destructive and celebratory, but it can also be illuminating. As the torch relay ends today at the opening ceremony of the 2015 Pan Am Games, this is something technology pros should keep in mind.

Until recently, the way IT work was passed on in large organizations was nothing like the Pan Am Games’ torch relay. Responsibilities for things like network administration, security and application development were given in a linear fashion as junior staff moved up through the ranks, from help desk to IT manager and possibly to CIO.

Now, however, I think a lot of what happens in enterprise IT is very much like passing the Pan Am torch.

For example, those in the relay might never have known each other before, just as those making decisions about enterprise technology may include traditional IT but also staff from many other fields or departments.

Those running the relay may have a vastly different set of capabilities – some are probably in great shape, while others carrying the torch might find it more of a struggle. Technology know-how also varies widely across today’s enterprises, even though organizations are arguably more dependent on IT than ever before.

As for the torch itself, there probably isn’t anyone in the Pan Am relay who actually had a hand in designing it. Instead, they merely move it forward as best they can. Same goes for much of enterprise IT, which is a combination of legacy investments and future spending plans, all of which has to be taken from A to B by a variety of stakeholders with imperfect knowledge.

With all that in mind, what makes something like the Pan Am torch relay successful? It’s about being well organized from the very beginning. It’s about people working well together, even if they’re not best friends, because they know there’s a bigger purpose. Perhaps most importantly, it’s about making sure you don’t drop the torch – that the fire doesn’t go out.

For those in enterprise IT, it may not always be clear when their own particular part of the run will end, but there’s no question they’re part of the relay.

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