Change is not necessary. Survival is optional.
W. Edwards Deming
Let’s face it, we’ve all talked about how much we hate our IT departments. Although IT used to be a boon to organizations, today many IT departments are out of touch and unable to keep up with the 21st century pace of change. They have become more of a burden than a blessing, often unable to provide us what we want, when we want it. The consequences could be worse than a few disgruntled employees. Consider this statistic: over 40% of the companies that were in the Fortune 500 in 2000 fell off the list or into oblivion by 2010. In a world where disruption is the new norm, an IT organization that cannot respond quickly and anticipate changes may mean doom for the firm. So why has IT gone from being the sexy new speedboat to the rusty old anchor preventing the ship from sailing?
The speed of change
It’s become an overused axiom, but the world has changed. Ok, the world has always been changing, but the pace has picked up dramatically. Forces associated with this acceleration are putting pressure on IT, and thus far, many IT departments are struggling to keep up.
Technology is evolving rapidly. Desktops and even laptops are obsolete. Every device is connected to the Internet, including our refrigerators. Google is collecting every piece of information on the planet. Drones may soon be delivering packages. And cars are already driving themselves. The speed at which technology is evolving can make your head spin.
This poses a huge challenge for an IT organization. On the one hand, constantly implementing the latest technology interrupts worker productivity, poses security risks, and strains IT resources. On the other hand, employees expect and demand access to the latest technology. Organizations may even depend on it to remain competitive, helping find new efficiencies, cost reductions, and blue oceans in an era where profits may be harder to realize. IT departments may have no choice but to keep up with this rapid technology evolution.
Employees are more technically savvy. Brookings estimates that 75% of the US workforce will be made up of Millennials by 2025. Although my generation can’t all be lumped together in a single “Generation Me” stereotype, the fact is the majority of us have grown up with digital technology. Sharing and collaboration were values taught to us by those who now look down on Facebook, Twitter, and Yammer. We not only expect those values in the workplace but demand the technologies to enable global collaboration and mobility.
And just to be clear – to avoid any sense that I’m stereotyping – technical savvy is in no way limited to younger generations, and not all of my Millennial peers are technically proficient. However, it serves as a good example of the changing workforce and expectations of technological capabilities that IT can and should provide. This is how we work and we’re poised to become the dominant members of the workforce.
Surveys conducted at one organization dealing with four generations of employees working together found that each generational group preferred working in distinct ways, with pretty clear preferences towards sharing, collaboration, and mobility among the younger employees. The challenge for IT will be to support these varying work styles to fully empower and engage their employees.
IT has become a commodity. Digital technology is everywhere and everyone has access to it. Cloud services allow any organization – even small startups without formal IT departments – to have access to the same ERP, HR, and big data capabilities as Fortune 500 companies. Many of these services require little administrative overhead or technical know-how. IT capabilities no longer provide the competitive advantage they did even a few years ago. Instead, they are a requirement for conducting day-to-day business. Basic technology administration won’t be enough for IT staff to remain indispensable to a firm and they will have to find new ways to add value.
Corporate strategy is shifting to speed and flexibility. New challengers emerge on the market every day attempting to disrupt established players. In our globalized society that market is now the entire planet. Industries and firms long thought untouchable are disappearing or fundamentally changing.
To cope with this new paradigm companies are abandoning the idea of long-term strategies and adopting more dynamic ones focused on identifying new opportunities and swiftly capitalizing on them. The current structure of many IT departments is too hierarchical and rigid to provide the technological capabilities needed to support these strategies. When it takes two years to deploy the latest version of Windows or Office, how long will it take to deliver a customer-facing application critical to an organization’s new strategy? The answer is probably, “Too long.”
This shift also means that IT can no longer say, “No.” IT managers have established themselves as gatekeepers to all things digital and high-tech, making decisions on what gets done, what doesn’t, what gets purchased, and what projects take priority. These decisions should be left to the rest of the organization with IT serving in a consultative role. Organizations cannot wait for their IT departments to vet, test, and deliver solutions on their own timelines. Technology needs to support the business, and IT’s failure to deliver what is needed has led many departments, especially marketing, to develop their own technology strategies and infrastructure. If IT doesn’t do its job, someone else will.
Survival is a choice
It’s not all just doom and gloom for IT in the coming years. Technology is still an important resource for organizations, especially as worldwide profit growth slows and new strategies take shape. The stage is set for technology executives and professionals to drive innovation and strategy within their organizations, but they have to start changing the way they do business.
Be a partner, not a gatekeeper. For IT to provide real value to the organization, it must become an integral partner. It doesn’t cut it anymore to focus on technology support and maintenance. That means listening to business needs and finding meaningful ways to contribute to corporate goals and objectives. IT as a silo around technology services and keeping the computers running serves no one.
As organizations become more agile and adopt more flexible strategies, IT will need to develop new business processes, governance structures, and technologies that will enable them to follow suit. They must deliver exactly what the business needs, when it needs it. IT leaders need to be able to see into the future to new technologies and industry trends and prepare the organization for those changes.
Hire the right people. To be a good partner, IT must understand how its customers do business. It’s not enough to just be an expert in database design, network architecture, or a system like SAP. IT managers need to hire people who understand how those systems impact business. They need to be knowledgeable about their industry and develop technology strategies that help the organization find competitive advantages.
The medical field seems to understand the importance of hiring the right technology people. Most hospitals today will only hire IT staff with nursing degrees or other medical expertise. They need people who can fully appreciate how technology impacts day-to-day operational work. More organizations will need to follow this example.
Focus on people, not technology. In my many years working in various IT organizations in different roles, I regularly heard IT staff blame users for anything and everything that went wrong with a computer or application. “Faulty connection between the chair and keyboard” was always my favorite diagnosis. However, IT staff must remember that technology is meant to enable employees. Any failure to use that technology is a reflection on the IT department, not the users. Training, communication, strategy, and overall business readiness are all IT responsibilities.
Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, recently said in a press conference, “As devices come and go, you persist.” Technology is a servant of people. Focusing on technology that may or not exist a year from now will all but guarantee irrelevance. IT must empower people through technology, regardless of the specific application or technology.
The future of IT
It all started with the ‘T’; technology dominated. Moore’s law ruled and the world was focused on faster, smaller devices and new form factors like laptops, tablets, and wearables. Then the ‘I’ became dominant as we realized that the real benefit to an interconnected world and computers in our pockets was access to information. We’re all still talking about big data and business intelligence. We even refer to our current era as the Information Age.
But the real future of IT is people. Often it feels like people have been overshadowed by iStuff. And there’s nothing wrong with iStuff. I have iStuff. I wear a “wearable” (on my wrist, not my head… never on my head). But these things are meant to serve me. I’m not a servant of my technology. Somehow we’ve lost sight of that over the years.
IT departments don’t have to become irrelevant. Leaders must recognize that they can play an important strategic role, especially in our fast-paced economic environment, by focusing on people and the organization. It will be a big shift for many, but an important one if IT wants to remain relevant.
Survival is not mandatory, but extinction doesn’t have to be inevitable.