IT transformed

It’s Labor Day, so let’s talk about the future of IT work. Maybe that doesn’t sound like something with much of a future. These days, unemployment among IT people in the U.S. is right up there with the overall unemployment rate. There’s lots of talk that corporate IT staffs will remain gutted even after the economy recovers. And as IT is squeezed until it’s unable to do anything but the most basic janitorial functions – fix leaks in the plumbing, patch up the broken Windows – is the future of work in IT shops a painful downward spiral into irrelevance?

Maybe. But I’m betting on transformation.

After all, every time someone has predicted the demise of what IT people do – by way of automation, outsourcing, downsizing or some magic technology bullet that’s supposed to make IT professionals obsolete – something has always happened to change the game and make IT more critical than ever.

Remember, minicomputers were supposed to put data processing in the hands of departmental users and wipe out the data center. So were PCs. Packaged enterprise applications were going to make big programming projects obsolete. Fourth-generation programming languages were going to be so easy to use, no one would need programmers at all. Simplified systems designed for lights-out operation would make systems administrators a thing of the past. Easy-to-use software would make the help desk unnecessary.

So, what happened? Client/server happened, that’s what – and LANs, Windows, the Web, terabyte data warehouses, global e-commerce and the realities of SAP and Siebel implementations. Instead of becoming irrelevant, IT shops just become more and more essential.

Once, IT’s job was to provide data to help run the business, run networks to collect that data and write programs to process that data. IT people still do that.

But now IT also builds Web sites to sell products, manages wireless communications to support salespeople, links suppliers to warehouses and customers via real-time supply chains, distributes human resources information on intranets and enforces sexual harassment policies with Internet filters.

IT used to do data. Now IT does business.

That’s no coincidence. Business used to run on information – the data in data processing. Now business runs on communications – with suppliers and customers, and between sales and manufacturing and executive management, all on the networks and systems IT builds and maintains. The more the business depends on the communications technology IT provides, the more essential IT becomes.

And in the future? Business will run on change. And IT’s work will be transformation: rapidly reconfiguring processes to let users adapt to changing markets, supply conditions, customer needs and business requirements.

Sure, IT does that now. But it will all have to happen faster and more effectively. That’s where the competitive edge will come from: IT’s ability to execute on the need to transform the business.

To do that, IT itself will have to be transformed. Some IT practices and job titles will go the way of punched cards, Cobol and green screens. Programming may not survive as we know it, but applications will be updated continually to solve more business problems more effectively. Automated operations will let IT efforts shift to dealing with network capacity and security issues. And support will focus on preventive maintenance of both systems and users, because there will be no time for bugs, confusion or other help desk problems.

That’s the future of IT work. If you love the job you have today, you may not like it. If you fear change, you’ll hate it.

But unless someone comes up with a more effective way to enable business transformation, better plan on having IT – transformed – around for a long time.

Frank Hayes, Computerworld (U.S.)’s senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at