Over the course of three decades, Jeanne Ross built a reputation as a leading organizational theorist who connects viscerally with senior technology executives and the challenges they face.
At the MIT Center for Information Systems Research, Ross developed a career-defining passion for enterprise architecture, a strategy she defines as “designing your people, processes, and technology so that you can meet customers’ expectations and offer new digital offerings that solve their problems.”
Known also for her research on IT governance and digital design, Ross focused most recently on how companies formulate and execute business strategies around digital technologies — social, mobile, analytics, cloud, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence.
In a video conversation with CISR chairman Peter Weill, her longtime collaborator and co-author, Ross reflected on her career as she retires from MIT and shared some of her hard-won wisdom. A sampling:
Visibility into IT doesn’t come easily
Ross fell into information systems by chance. She was teaching undergraduate accounting at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin when the dean called her into his office asked her to teach management information systems. “I said, ‘I don't know anything about management information systems,’ and he said, ‘Oh, don't worry. It's just like accounting,’” Ross recalled. “I have to tell you, MIS is nothing like accounting.”
Ross got her PhD in MIS “only to be less incompetent,” but said even then she still didn’t feel like she understood IT. “I really only understood one thing, and that was that many people felt they were spending way too much money on IT in their company and getting very little value for it. That was a problem that I wanted to help solve.”
Enterprise architecture is the key to IT success . . .
At CISR, Ross began studying companies “that seemed to be making progress on this problem that so fascinated me” – eventually completing more than 50 case studies during her tenure. “I loved every one of them, the stories of ups and downs and the trauma and excitement as they overcame the obstacles to getting value from IT,” Ross recalled.
By the mid-90s, Ross started to see a pattern among companies that were having success in their efforts at enterprise architecture — that is, the organizing logic for business processes and IT infrastructure. “A few companies were actually designing the interrelationships between people, processes, and technology to derive more value from IT. In other words, they were doing enterprise architecture,” Ross said.
“What I learned with my colleagues is that the trick to getting value from enterprise architecture is to commit to the long haul,” Ross said. “This is not an initiative or a project. This is an approach to managing your company.”
. . . but many companies falter along the way
Ross and CISR researchers established that companies go through five stages of enterprise architecture maturity — moving from business silos to standardized technology to optimized core to business modularity and then a digital ecosystem.
Stage three — using technology to guide people through optimal enterprise processes like supply chain, accounts payable, billing, and sales — is where companies really begin to derive value from IT, Ross said. “We watched Lego, PepsiAmericas, USAA, and CEMEX put in enterprise systems that really worked and created huge value for their companies,” Ross said, citing several of CISR’s corporate research partners.
Unfortunately, stage three was where a lot of firms got stuck, sometimes seriously so. “We observed massive failures in business transformations that frankly were lasting six, eight, 10 years. It’s so hard because it's an exercise in reductionism, in tight focus,” Ross said.
Instead of trying to fix and optimize all its processes, a company should identify its most important data — as examples, Ross cited package data at UPS, customer data at USAA, and supply chain data at Lego.
“We find this most important data, and we find a few processes that capture it accurately and use it well, and in doing that, we build the essence of the digitized platform that we need to exist as a company,” she said.
In coaching firms, storytelling is a skill and a gift
Ross worked with Weill more than 20 years, writing three books together and conducting dozens of research projects and hundreds of executive briefings around the world. He cited her “unique capability to get to the crux of an issue” and during their conversation told her, “One of the things I've admired about you over all the years is your storytelling ability. You take an incredibly complicated world and draw a story through it and then tell it.”
Ross said her narrative bent comes from being fascinated by people's stories and wanting to bring them to life. “I learned that by listening really, really carefully that I could feel the pain and the excitement that people were experiencing,” she said. “I do think if we want to understand the world, we do it best through stories.”
The work continues. Here’s what’s next
As one of the most familiar and public faces of CISR, Ross will be missed by the community, but the bench is deep.
“I believe CISR is not going to miss a beat as I leave,” Ross said, citing various colleagues and their areas of ongoing research: Nick van der Meulen on digital operating models and enterprise architecture; Barbara Wixom on data monetization; Nils Fonstad on digital innovation; Ina Sebastian on digital partnering; Kristine Dery on employee experience; and Weill and Stephanie Woerner on what senior level managers and boards need to know about digital strategy.
In retirement, Ross said, she wants to spend “lots and lots of time” with her husband, children, and grandchildren, including newborn twins with whom she has been quarantining.
“In addition, I would like to find ways to make the world better,” Ross said. “My plan is to start by seeing what I can do to promote voting rights in this country, and then we'll see where that takes me.”