IT outfits urged to step into strategic shoes

William Bembridge recalls all too well the case of a technology project gone wrong. The endeavour’s main trouble: it wasn’t what the business needed.

Bembridge is senior systems integrator at the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the federal government’s business development funding agency in Moncton. The undertaking occurred at another outfit he worked at, he said during TechEd, a Microsoft Corp. conference held in Orlando earlier this month. Bembridge wasn’t involved, “but I learned from…somebody else’s mistake.”

Bembridge said the failure had to do with IT stakeholders refusing to take the business needs into account. “If you don’t understand the business, you can unintentionally make some really silly decisions that affect the strategic, long-term outcome of the company,” he said. Understanding the business need is part and parcel of a concept Microsoft has been talking up lately.

It’s called “the new world of work.” In it, IT is supposed to provide not just the technological plumbing required to make an enterprise go, but also strategic advice — prescient, tech-based directives for company executives to consider as they try to grow the business, maintain a lead or beat a competitor.

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“IT professionals are being challenged…to take leadership in guiding their organizations,” reads Microsoft’s white paper, Helping IT Professionals Enable the New World of Work. The document’s the result of a summit of CEOs hosted by Microsoft’s chief architect Bill Gates in June. It’s supposed to “show how Microsoft server technologies…will transition IT professionals from routine task managers to proactive strategic partners within their business.”

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, said better technology is required for the new world of work to arrive. “Our mission is to give you, developers and IT people, the tools you need to drive success,” he said during a keynote TechEd speech.

According to Mike Bulmer, Office product manager at Microsoft Canada Co. in Mississauga, Ont., a fundamental part of the new world of work is self service, such as getting users to employ portals that they can populate themselves. Once users are taking care of their own needs via technologies like this, IT can turn its attention to the business itself, and to scrutinizing future tech projects that can help the company grow.

Michelle Warren, IT industry analyst at Evans Research Corp. in Toronto, said the new world of work notion is no stretch of the imagination. Business people seem to have a greater appreciation of how technology can help their corporations than they have in the recent past. It makes sense that IT would come to understand business as well.

“The two entities have to progress along the same path,” she said. But the new world of work won’t come about over night, judging by Warren Shiau’s words. He’s an industry analyst at The Strategic Counsel in Toronto. Shiau noted that even today, most IT initiatives are meant to automate manual tasks, “to free up IT’s time.” Only after it’s free from infrastructure maintenance will IT “be used…to produce business advantage.”

Bembridge at the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency said it’s happening in his workplace. Although he doesn’t have a seat at the big, C-level table himself, one of his bosses corrals ideas and tech know-how from the IT team and represents the strategic role that more and more IT departments will be asked to play in the future.

It might spell a different sort of workload for IT pros, “but you can’t be isolated in the server room, saying, ‘I understand how this piece of technology works. I have enough,’” Bembridge said. “This entire industry has to come out their shells a little bit. Then we can actually talk and explain to the people making the big decisions why we’d choose certain things.”

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