IT at the crossroads: Lead or fade away

The consumerization, mobile, and big data trends all point to old-style IT's diminishing stature

Forrester Research recently sent a warning all IT leaders should heed: It strongly advised businesses to remove IT from leadership in tablet efforts because IT isn't suited for discovering business value. "IT dominates the tablet decision process, and it shouldn't. ... Business-driven tablet programs will uncover transformative opportunities," wrote analysts Ted Schadler and Simon Yates. I know them both, and they are among the top thinkers in this space.

The IT community is facing an existential decision about technology in general, not just tablets: Should it retreat into the data center whence it came, or can it evolve into a broader strategic role advising and enabling better business through its technology acumen? In other words, does IT become the facilities group for infrastructure technology, making sure the lights are running and the HVAC is working, or an internal strategic consultant more like (the model) HR, legal, and finance departments?

[ Consumerization is about way more than iPhones and cloud apps. Galen Gruman traces the fundamental forces shaping the new technology reality in business. | Subscribe to InfoWorld's Consumerization of IT newsletter today. ]

It appears that some in IT prefer retreating into the data center, safely surrounded by their servers and away from those "end-users" so distant from the core systems IT manages. But I've also met many CIOs and IT leaders who want to make the leap out of the 1960s-era data center mentality into the 21st-century technology-enablement business. The IT community is wrestling with a sea change in its role as technology has become democratized -- the promise of "digitizing" business that IT made in the 1990s is now coming true.

The uncomfortable reality in business today
However, even those who aspire to a strategic role may find the window closing, as businesses tire of waiting for IT to act strategically and take on technology leadership themselves. That's the dark side (for IT) of the consumerization phenomenon, where employees assert their choices on how they do their work and the tools they use, at least in so-called front office activities like sales, marketing, customer support, planning, and R&D.

The consumerization notion, popularized and formalized with the rise of the BYOD movement two years ago, is an uncomfortable one for many IT pros, as it challenges their supremacy on matters relating to technology. Such defensiveness comes from insecurity -- confident IT would be happy to open the gates because it would know its role and its value are secure.

But self-confidence is not easy for many in IT. After all, IT has been beaten up a lot in the last 20 years, even as it has also been celebrated. IT brought us e-commerce, email, and Web access, but also disruptive ERP deployments, confusing HR and other corporate apps, periodic email outages, and lots and lots of red tape. IT initially resisted PCs, the Internet, email and messaging, social media, cloud services, mobile devices, and all the other on-the-desk technologies we now take for granted, then tried to build a prison around them that employees had to enter to use them -- users haven't forgotten or forgiven that.

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