Redefining the business role of IT

It appears the “great divide” between IT and business has not closed and perhaps even grown wider. Business still has high expectations of reliability but an increasing impatience with process and time it takes to ensure it.

Some things don’t change. “When things go right, IT is a hindrance. When things go wrong, IT is accountable.“

This was just one of the comments that came out of a recent roundtable discussion sponsored by EMC and VMware where a group of senior IT executives sat together at the eye of the storm and grappled with the issues that confront us as we try to help our business partners meet their challenges.

If the public mantra was “IT needs to get out of the way of the business” a private sentiment might be what one participant said, “our business should be to get the business out of the business of IT.“ Ultimately, however, our group was very realistic. In a contest between business and IT— IT loses. In a Software as a Service world, “we have people out there who have credit cards, and they’ll buy the service somewhere else.”

Are organizational changes holding back IT delivery?

One participant spoke eloquently of the challenges presented in serving organizations that are trying to centralize, but have legacy systems that are all developed to serve the decentralized organization. Using decentralized systems to serve centralized processes won’t work. Yet the organization itself is still in the process of change and presents at best a moving target part-way between centralized and decentralized. So trying to roll out new or standardized systems is difficult if not impossible while the organization tries to define itself in new ways.

While everyone raves about the move from capital to operating costs of new cloud and SaaS systems or other new payment models, these can create a new set of challenges. Budgets and fiscal structures are not set up to accommodate some of the new “everything as a service model.”

New systems may be relatively cheap to acquire, yet IT may be required to support the legacy as well. Where is the savings? “Every application has to have a mobile version, but where are the additional funds for this?”

Transformations cost money and require additional resources, but often there aren’t structures to pay for them.
In that light, we looked at some of the areas where IT was breaking new ground.

Rebirth of architecture

Once we may have had the notion that the role of architecture was to understand and articulate the business structure. It needed to do this in a way that allowed IT to better serve and enable business. There was a base assumption that the business could actually be described to IT.

Today, we see the flaw in that logic. Today business itself doesn’t understand fully where it is going. Even when it does get a handle on its own directions, the environment changes. Our own group ran the full gamut – changes in legislation, changes in corporate structure, disintermediation, hyper-competition, globalization – every company represented was in some way experiencing major changes from forces outside their control and with ever changing and often uncertain outcomes.

This is the world in which a new architecture had to emerge. Why? As one participant pointed out, data and information are the drivers of business and “data is pretty useless unless you rely heavily on architecture”.

Data and BI

One of the great hopes for architecture and the new role of IT lies in the business demands for information. Call it big data, call it business intelligence, call it business analytics, the story is the same. In this new world, “data is going to be the business. Full stop.”

Yet companies are not content to live with the promise of information. IT is increasingly challenged to get tangible benefits. As one participant said, “We’ll be successful when it says in the “annual report that we made money because of data.”
IT needs to go beyond technology to meet these challenges. Certainly there are new tools. But new approaches are also required. Today, some companies are hiring “data scientists” and defining new roles. At least the larger companies are — smaller companies can’t afford it.

With each new stride come new challenges – often not technical in nature. Privacy. Security. Issues of ownership. Who does data belong to? In public sector, particularly health care, more and more, data belongs to the citizen or the patient. It is less clear in corporate terms. Under new privacy and anti-spam legislation, who owns your corporate profile?

Brave new world

There was a realism that was clearly refreshing. Nobody was going to hand IT the role it needed. “If you want to sit at the big boy’s table, you first have to act like a big boy. It means being invited. “True leadership is required.”

This issue kept resurfacing – more than simply communicating, IT needs to show real leadership. IT is looking for a new maturity in their relationship with the business. “We want to trust them and have them trust us.”

Partnership means abandoning the old levers of control, which most agreed didn’t work anyhow. We (IT) don’t own the devices. We (IT) don’t own the data.

In fact, rather than restrict what the business does, most spoke of empowering the business in its truest sense. It meant shifting not just decisions but accountability to the business.

It’s a counter-intuitive strategy. Give away control to gain influence. It went further for some. They asked, “is the value of IT only expressed by adding to the technology footprint?” Some believed that IT should be the answer to all business problems. In fact, to them, it was important to “stop people from jumping to IT right away.” “I’m going to give you an option,” said one participant. “Sometimes the best solution is NO IT.”</>

Another counter-intuitive strategy – technology sometimes gets in the way understanding the business. As one group said, “we are using pencil and whiteboard.” Others argued for “embedding” or often just getting out to see what really happens. “We need to talk to the guy on the ground level.” Too few of us have been “out in the field”.

Doing IT differently

In the end, our discussion showed how “we have to do things differently.” It could be a greater integration with the business. As one CIO from education said, “I’m a superintendent of learning – not just a CIO.” Others talked about “embedding” IT in the business. Others talked about seeing what the people in the field were doing “first hand.”

In this world of uncertainty, IT has an opportunity to embrace this transformation and to show real leadership. As always the future is uncertain – but if this group was any indication – the question of running IT like a business might not be the real issue. In a few years we may be looking to the business running more like IT.

(Jim Love is CIO of IT World Canada)

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Jim Love
Jim Love
I've been in IT and business for over 30 years. I worked my way up, literally from the mail room and I've done every job from mail clerk to CEO. Today I'm CIO and Chief Digital Officer of IT World Canada - Canada's leader in ICT publishing and digital marketing.

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