It’s been over twenty years since I first heard a speaker at an IT conference talk about how those of us in IT had the vendor community — the systems integrators, the packaged software vendors, the outsourcing companies — as competitors, and thus we had to treat the business as customers and win their business rather than trust to the corporate hierarchy to keep it.

In all that time, no year has gone by without that message being repeated. Yet, for years, IT groups watched their share of the business of IT in their enterprise be eroded, by business process outsourcing deals, by business areas buying packages and services around them, and by their own exit from designing and building software to simply implementing packages.

In the past few years, as the idea of cloud computing has spread, there’s been a movement back from outsourcing to in-house operation. No matter how good the outsourcer was, the fact remained that it was in the outsourcer’s interest to run a quiet, stable operation. That meant that as technology changed, and as business demands changed, the contract became an impediment to seeing the outsourcer keep pace.

That, today, you can implement what you run yourself as a private cloud means that you can merge your in-house operations with outside cloud services and produce a hybrid offering that couples secure, responsive, and cost-effective into a common output.

But are you, today, as easy to do business with as, say Amazon Web Services is?

After all, if I need a server instantiation, I go to their website, enter my payment details, and there it is. If I need storage, a similar answer exists. It’s not unreasonable to say that you’re looking at a one minute response time to bring up infrastructure on demand.

Can you do that? Your technology probably can, but can you?

Two years ago the organization I worked for converted to a completely virtualized infrastructure, with a new server being a $300/year budget commitment. From my point of view, as a user, this ought to have been nirvana: I could create an experiment for my area of the business immediately, and collapse it when done.

Wrong. 60-90 days to get a virtual server running remained the norm, because none of the other processes to be customer-centric were ever put in place.

All the paperwork, in triplicate, still had to be filled out. Architects had to pass over it, deciding whether this request would upset their future state sufficiently that it needed to be reworked (I am not kidding about this). Budget authorization had to be obtained. A funds transfer had to be worked out from my budget centre to theirs (understand, turning on a new virtual image cost them no outlays, but rules are rules). I had to write a business case, a justification for my technology choices, on and on it went.

Walking down one flight of stairs to talk to the IT group — there were only four of them — did no good. I ended up doing what everyone else did: buying what I needed in the cloud, or buying equipment and running a little server farm in a corner of the office.

Thinking smarter about being customer-friendly might mean that we need to rethink all of the elements of how we interact, not just some of them. It might bring the collision between the rigours of our internal processes — most of which exist for good reasons, even if we’ve forgotten the problems they were set up to solve — and the need to work at the speed of the market, not our internal operation.

Yes, handing out server images on demand isn’t optimal, just like keeping an inventory of laptops, tablets and phones on hand to serve demands for these on the spot isn’t. But what we’re talking about here is changing the core strategy for IT from operating efficiency to customer intimacy. That means, to optimize our customer interactions, we accept a loss of efficiency in our own operations.

If we really want to compete with the vendors, that’s what we’re going to have to do.

I’m looking forward to the day when I stop going to user IT conferences and hearing about how we have to be able to compete with the market, and start going to vendor sessions where they’re moaning about how they can’t compete with the internal groups.

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