The Magic Bullet Theory in IT-Enabled Transformation

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It is widely known that many large-scale change management projects involving new information technology (IT) fail for reasons unrelated to technical feasibility and reliability.1 It is also well known that good technology “implementation” and “change management” techniques can substantially increase the chances of success.2 Why, then, do so many organizations fail at IT-enabled transformation? What can line executives and IT specialists do to increase the odds of success?

In fact, there is a lengthy list of good techniques and methods for successful IT-enabled change projects. While we have nothing new to add to this list, we explain why the techniques and methods are not always used, and we challenge common notions about who should use them. In our experience, both IT specialists and line managers frequently have and hold onto failure-promoting beliefs about their roles in change. Success requires different beliefs and team-work in applying the best practices of change.

We view IT-enabled transformation as a business process that crosses several functional lines. Because there are handoffs in the process, some things get done twice, while others fall through the cracks. Even if each function performs its role exactly as prescribed, the outcome may not meet customer expectations for timeliness or quality. And when the different functions do not even agree about who is supposed to do each task, only luck — or magic — can produce good results.

When we examined what many people think about who should do what in IT-enabled change, we found that they seem to believe in magic. The joint efforts of all parties playing their scripted roles do not add up to successful change. Sometimes these people still get good results — by accident — which means that they’re less likely to change their behavior the next time when things don’t go as planned.

In manufacturing, production experts have learned how to achieve better results and just-in-time flexibility by broadening people’s work roles. One strategy combines separate production tasks into the work of a team. Another involves cross-training workers on upstream and downstream jobs. That way, production workers can correct errors introduced by workers upstream and prevent errors that might affect workers farther down the line.

In IT-enabled change, however, the emphasis seems to be on people staying within prescribed roles. Line executives, IS specialists, and other groups are each assigned a role (e.g.,



1. M.L. Markus and M. Keil, “If We Build It, They Will Come: Designing Information Systems That Users Want to Use,” Sloan Management Review, volume 35, Summer 1994, pp. 11–25.

2. R.I. Benjamin and E. Levinson, “A Framework for Managing IT-Enabled Change,” Sloan Management Review, volume 34, Summer 1993, pp. 23–33.

3. M. Hammer and J. Champy, Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution (New York: HarperBusiness, 1993).

4. We’ve told a few of those stories ourselves.

5. E.H. Schein, “Three Cultures of Management: The Key to Organizational Learning,” Sloan Management Review, volume 38, Fall 1996, pp. 9–20.

6. E.H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992).

7. R.H. Schaffer and H.A. Thompson, “Successful Change Programs Begin with Results,” Harvard Business Review, volume 70, January–February 1992, pp. 80–89.

8. C. Argyris, Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1990).

9. Markus and Keil (1994).

10. M.L. Markus and D. Robey, “Business Process Reengineering and the Role of the Information Systems Professional,” in V. Grover and W. Kettinger, eds., Business Process Reengineering: A Strategic Approach (Middletown, Pennsylvania: Idea Group Publishing, 1995), pp. 569–589.

11. P. Strassmann, “Outsourcing: A Game for Losers,” Computerworld, 21 August 1995, p. 75.

12. J. Dearden, “The Withering Away of the IS Organization,” Sloan Management Review, volume 27, Summer 1987, pp. 87–91, quote on p. 90.

13. Peter Keen wrote about this famous IT “counterimplementation” strategy in the early 1980s. It still works. See:

P.G.W. Keen, “Information Systems and Organizational Change,” Communications of the ACM, volume 24, January 1981, pp. 24–33.

14. T.G. Cummings and E.F. Huse, Organization Development and Change, 4th ed. (St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing Company, 1989); and

R.M. Schwarz, The Skilled Facilitator: Practical Wisdom for Developing Effective Groups (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994).

15. N.H. Bancroft, New Partnerships for Managing Technological Change (New York: Wiley, 1992); and

R.E. Walton, Up and Running: Integrating Information Technology and the Organization (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1989).

16. E.H. Schein, Process Consultation (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1985).

17. Historically, major changes in the architecture of organizational IT have occurred about every fifteen years, and important developments have occurred two or three times in each period.

18. R.M. Kanter, B.A. Stein, and T.D. Jick, The Challenge of Organizational Change: How Companies Experience It and Leaders Guide It (New York: Free Press, 1992); and

E.M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 4th ed. (New York: Free Press, 1995).

19. D. Buchanan and D. Boddy, The Expertise of the Change Agent: Public Performance and Backstage Activity (New York: Prentice Hall, 1992).

20. R. Semler, Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace (New York: Warner Books, 1993).

21. C.D. Allen, “Succeeding as a Clandestine Change Agent,” Communications of the ACM, volume 38, number 5, 1995, pp. 81–86.

22. M.L. Markus and T. Connolly, “Why CSCW Applications Fail: Problems in the Adoption of Interdependent Work Tools” (Los Angeles: Proceedings of the Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, 1990), pp. 371–380.

23. T.H. Davenport, R.C. Eccles, and L. Prusak, “Information Politics,” Sloan Management Review, volume 34, Fall 1992, pp. 53–65; and

P.A. Strassmann, The Politics of Information Management: Policy Guidelines (New Canaan, Connecticut: Information Economics Press, 1995).

24. J.R. Katzenback, cited in: S. Sherman, “Wanted: Company Change Agents,” Fortune, 11 December 1995, pp. 197–198.

25. P. Block, Stewardship — Choosing Service over Self-Interest (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1993).

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