While business transformation led by technology is impacting all of us, there is no department feeling this more than the Information Technology (IT) department.
For most organizations, IT has always acted as the steward for all of the technology that supports business processes. But the nature of that stewardship is evolving. As our collective reliance on technology and the strategic value of that technology both increase, so has the impact that IT departments – and the budgets they carry – can have on an organization.
This evolution is not just leading to bigger technology budgets for tools and systems, but for forward-thinking organizations it is also causing executives to rethink the role of IT altogether. After all, IT is leading many companies down a path of being able to change work itself.
Organizations that fit this mold, likewise need to rethink the role of the IT department itself. What has emerged as the new model of IT objectives can be summarized with 4 I’s – Infrastructure, Innovation, Integration, and Intelligence.
In the past, IT had the exclusive mandate to manage locked in, highly capital intensive infrastructure. As much a part of the building facilities as the bricks and mortar of an office, IT professionals would manage the rigid technology backbone of a company. What this meant were big purchases that were capital intensive – servers, storage and networking infrastructure. Those assets, and the purchase and maintenance of those assets required very strict procurement processes and very long term planning.
While these investments are no doubt still important for many organizations, the emergence of cloud and software as a service (SaaS) has greatly increased the flexibility of IT decision makers along with the business units they support. In fact, recent research from IDC has found that “cloud” now makes up close to 1/3 of all IT infrastructure spending today.
What this has allowed is for IT professionals to think of infrastructure in a different context. Rather than worrying about the individual hardware components required to support the business, IT can now think in terms of business services. This shift in thinking, moving focus away from technology guts and shifting priority towards a service (and business outcome) first, has drastically changed the way IT departments can prioritize and triage projects.
Take, for example, the world of health and safety and quality management. Projects used to be supported by raw technology tools such as spreadsheets and home grown database scripting. While these solutions were great in terms of capturing data, when it came to actual management and decision making they would fall short. Today, much like with many other business solutions, IT can look to purpose built, full stack EHS and quality management solutions that are more than custom build databases, and include not only front end data collection, but robust database and reporting and analytics capabilities. More importantly, these full stack solution will be tuned and configured from top to bottom with a purpose – in this case EHS and quality management.
The cloud and cloud technologies have been a catalyst for IT’s transformation into a key driver of business innovation. IT supported business tools today don’t just make work easier and more efficient, in many cases new better tools can allow end users to evolve the nature of the jobs themselves. Companies of all stripes are taking notice of this, and according to research commissioned by IBM, 67% of companies have adopted cloud-based solutions to some degree.
If we use EHS or quality management as an example, historically these were both very reactive parts of the business. The mandate for these departments was to log and track incidents or manufacturing nonconformances. If issues were identified then resolutions were put into place well after the fact. Modern tools allow better tracking and analysis of leading indicators. While still in the early stages, as databases get more robust and deeper in the data they house, these leading indicators can be used to proactively change and improve processes before accidents or fines occur.
When it comes to technology, integration used to be defined by monolithic platforms that were difficult, if not impossible, to connect to other systems and data sources. This lead to one of the mantras of IT departments past – “nobody ever got fired for selecting (some giant IT firm)”. Because of this the whole organization would run off the infrastructure of one vendor, and IT was tasked with managing what often amounted to a lot of custom code and duct tape infrastructure.
These monolithic platforms would result in a single point of failure for the organization and often restricted how agile the organizations could be in their technology decisions.
Today’s cloud-based solutions not only bring with them a degree of agility, but they also bring common interfaces and open standards. Flexible web services and other web-based technologies allow IT organizations to truly build out best-of-breed technology infrastructure. Rather than relying on single sourced vendors, IT professionals are now able to weave together SaaS best-of-breed technologies for their organizations with relative ease. Need a CRM? Choose the best fit for your organization’s needs, not just the default CRM that your existing vendors has. Likewise fit and value based decisions can be made for purchases from EHS to supplier management as well. All of this with the added assurance that integration will be as simple as following industry standard best practices, rather than vendor specific locked in requirements.
Big data, and data-driven insights are changing the world. Once again the backbone of technology allowing this evolution falls to the IT department’s mandate. If you were to identify one specific element that is really enabling this change in the way that we collectively do our jobs it’s got to be data.
Data-driven decisions are changing the way that nearly all of us approach the decisions we make on a daily basis from small to strategic. Some pundits have even referred to data and its value as the “new oil” speculating about the future value of data and access to data-driven insights.
Because of this, building more intelligence into all business important systems is a goal that all executives today share. Environmental health and safety is a particularly interesting use case for these data-driven decisions. Acting as supporting activities for various regulatory compliance concerns, EHS has historically been a very reactive department. But much like other areas of business today, increasing amounts of data are now empowering EHS professionals to make more proactive decisions. Proactively predicting and forecasting what may happen in the future based on historical trends and leading indicators can not only help change the nature of the EHS profession, but those decisions and measures in turn can dramatically help businesses move forward with other strategic objectives.
As the role of the IT department continues to evolve, we’ll be keeping our eyes on the 4 I’s:
Infrastructure: “Cloud” and Software as a Service (SaaS) allow more IT flexibility and place a new emphasis on business services.
Innovation: New tools are evolving the nature of jobs themselves.
Integration: Cloud-based solutions with common interfaces are allowing for best-of-breed technology infrastructure.
Intelligence: Business intelligence capabilities are allowing companies to make more data-driven decisions.
In a world of constant innovation and Moore’s law, technology predictions are rarely perfectly accurate. It’s that ongoing change that is constant however, and you can be assured that information technology will be at the forefront of it.