Virtualization

The Straight Talk on IT's New Directions

Make no mistake: 2011 represents a sea change for IT strategy. Those IT leaders who view the upward trend in IT spend as welcome relief to return to pre-recession priorities will quickly find themselves in trouble.

The simple truth is that the focus on the back office -- IT's traditional domain -- is over. Companies are tired of paying for what they view as plumbing. Any consideration in the executive suite about the back office and infrastructure is all about making do and cost-cutting. Virtualization and private clouds are investments meant to accomplish this reduction -- they're not new gold mines to enrich IT's importance.

[ Rely on Bob Lewis' Advice Line newsletter for sage words on managing your IT career. | InfoWorld's Bill Snyder shows IT how to thrive in the new reality. ]

If your back office and infrastructure don't work by now, it's game over. You'll be outsourced to India or China, domestic service providers, or the cloud. Even if they do work, owning these aspects of IT is of no importance to your company. The new reality is that the back office and infrastructure have been demoted to a sort of IT facilities function -- whether internally or externally managed and provisioned.

This includes security, for which spending patience is running out. The recession motivated companies to cut back on the cost of security; overall, the risks didn't visibly increase. That's a green light to be looser on acceptable risk. Vendors may push technologies such as DLP (data loss prevention) and SEIM (security event and information management) and warn of advanced persistent threats, but don't expect buy-in for budget.

IT must adapt to this new reality. The more executives, vendors, and analysts I talk with, the more convinced I become that new skills, new conversations, and new dilemmas are on the docket for the new year. Here is a look at what to expect and how to evolve your IT organization to meet the challenges to come.

Mobile management: Bellwether of the new IT

Last year's shift in mobile management is proof enough of this new IT reality. After all, when the director of IT infrastructure at Crédit Suisse heralds the bring-your-own-device approach to endpoint management, you see the new attitude on risk and infrastructure avoidance writ large. ("I don't care what device someone has. We want to get out of the game of managing the system for the devices," Steve Hilton told Bloomberg BusinessWeek.)

It helps that the mobile security technology came of age in 2010 for the major platforms. At a recent CIO conference I attended, the consensus was that the era of the corporate BlackBerry is over; employees will bring their own devices, and if they meet the basic policy requirements, they're in. Defense contractors tell me the same thing, as do hospitals and other highly regulated entities, although their parameters are more stringent. Every survey I've seen backs this up.

What do companies expect from IT going forward? As usual, several not-always-compatible things.

The contradictions are evident: Be open and safe. Don't get geeky but stay on top of the new tech trends. Be business-focused and tech-savvy. Let the new generation own more of the tech, but make sure it all works. Learn to take risks but don't threaten the core. Do more with less.

Get used to it.

Although every company has a different reality in the engine room, the focus is what it can do to propel the ship forward, not how the engine is built. You're Scotty on the Enterprise, tasked with figuring it out when under attack and everything is breaking.

Data analytics: Pure opportunity

Before you succumb to pessimism, remember that with change comes opportunity.

Take analytics, one of the major areas of new IT investment. To date, IT's focus has been predominantly internal -- how the business or supply chain is running. That's essential, of course, but a decade after ERP and MRP, the time is right to set your sights beyond the company walls.

Understanding the external world -- the market, the customer, the trends -- is where competitive advantage is achieved. Here, analytics, especially around decision support, Big Data and fuzzy data, predictions, and inline adjustments (so-called operational BI), are key.

Despite the money being poured into these areas, they remain poorly understood. Here's where business-and-tech-savvy IT can help like no one else. Data management, large information systems -- the knowledge IT has accumulated in the past two decades dealing with data is essential to navigating the huge info pools, complex relationships, and high rate of change at the center of these problems.

As InfoWorld columnist Bill Snyder recently reported, analytics encompasses the best of IT's legacy and its new front-office mission. The business guys just don't understand how Hadoop or MapReduce can make them smarter -- but you can.

Mobile is another area rife with opportunity. Look beyond the issue of control to see how mobile devices and apps can help employees achieve better business results and how your infrastructure can best serve its increasingly mobile-oriented customer base. Ditto on social networking, HTML5, and related technologies -- cloud services, too.

Working together, you can try out ideas through collaborative pilots. That approach is working well for the CIOs of Disney Interactive, GE Healthcare, and DuPont. PwC calls them value-creating CIOs because they see the expanse beyond the protected core where they can innovate and experiment. Of course, CIOs don't create value without an IT staff to execute the plan. Looking beyond the firewall is paramount for business analysts; software, systems, and data architects; CSOs; infrastructure managers; database designers; and so on.

Embrace the tech savvy outside of IT

Deputizing tech-savvy business colleagues as part of a shadow IT organization that works with you, rather than around you, is a great way to expand your operations while loosening your workload.

Project managers, product managers, and solutions architects -- not just business analysts -- are strong candidates for these roles. Rather than wait for them to work around restrictions they see as being unreasonable, embrace them and set limits they will respect. In an environment where teamwork is emphasized over red lines, everyone learns, and the chances of meaningful business gains are much greater.

These days, product designers are increasingly using the same technologies that IT does, as well as specialty ones IT doesn't. As these technologies become more powerful, they are more likely to interact with back-office systems, such as customer support, sales management, CRM, SCM, and so on. A modern website is a great example of this confluence, one in which IT usually has minimal involvement; even the servers are often handled by an outsourcer.

For example, automakers whose cars track driver locations and habits to provide them with fuel-efficiency tips will need to tap into back-end information systems. Single-serve coffee makers with social networking hooks to share coffee trends will require customer data be accessible -- introducing performance, access, and security issues that the product designers probably aren't aware of.

In such cases, does IT have a role other than to deal with the consequences after the fact? Can IT participate in product development in product design departments, much as IT business analysts work in business units to help understand and shape activities that depend so much on IT? Maybe product designers take over the innovative, front-office IT work -- designing and deploying the cool stuff, from social networking to mobile apps -- and leave the back end of ERP, backup, and networking for an unloved "IT facilities" department or, worse, an outsourcer to manage?

IT's new mantra: "Think different"

The old Apple slogan, "Think different," is an excellent mantra for IT in rectifying the contradictions of the new IT mandate. InfoWorld columnist Bob Lewis explains how to do so in "Run IT as a business -- why that's a train wreck waiting to happen." In other words, everything you've been told is wrong.

I cringe when I hear that IT needs to align to the business, implying that IT is not part of the business in the first place. In fact, IT is essential to the business and should be as much a part of the strategy, development, and execution teams as any other group. Think of it this way: As long as IT thinks of "the business" as "not IT," IT will never be valued.

IT has a stereotype to overcome. More important, it must relinquish the stereotypes it holds of other entities in the organization -- sales and marketing, for example -- a practice that inhibits IT's ability to form advantageous interdepartmental partnerships.

If you look at where the technology jobs are these days, according to Dice.com, it's in these areas of architecture, design, solutions engineering, innovation, project leadership (not just management), and emerging technologies. Businesses are making their priorities clear. Can you adjust, or do you want to retreat into the engine room?

Don't get me wrong, the engine room is critical. But it needs fewer engineers to keep it running -- or should -- than in the early days. If the engine room is your passion, become a Scotty. But don't stay an ensign, because not many will be needed in the years to come.

Otherwise, join the larger ship, whether as an engineer partner or a player in another business unit, such as product design. Whatever you do, the future of IT is in helping make the business more successful in its own terms. Think different and be part of that future.

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  • This article, "The straight talk on IT's new directions," originally was published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in the technology industry and in tech careers at InfoWorld.com.

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