IT at the crossroads: Lead or fade away

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

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At the same time, a wave of compliance requirements imposed by the government after waves of corporate crimes and mistakes that cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars -- the Enron energy manipulations, the near-constant stream data breaches of personal information, the housing-market derivatives manipulations that tanked the world economy, the systematic misuse of insurance systems to deprive people of health care, and this year's LIBOR revelations, to name a few -- has largely been approached by businesses as an IT problem, handled through technology systems. That's put IT increasingly in a policing position around the information that has been abused or manipulated -- and, worse, as a narc who is allegedly wasting company time by playing Angry Birds or shopping online.

IT did get a real take-down after first the dot-com crash and during the recent recession, both after enjoying immodest rewards first in the post-Y2K era, then in the post-9/11 era. But IT is again growing, with low unemployment rates, even with the jobs lost to offshoring.

Users, meanwhile, are not doing as well. They too were hammered during the downturns, but haven't reaped such rich rewards (unless they're senior executives). For many, IT is the group that automated away their colleagues' jobs. Employees in general are suffering from a deeper malaise that makes them both jealous of techies' success and less tolerant of being controlled. Per a 2010 Conference Board report, "47 percent of people employees are satisfied by their work, a percentage that has plummeted over the years [from 61 percent in 1987]," says management consultant, author of the forthcoming book "Rebooting Work," and former eBay COO Maynard Webb. "People are less and less willing to cede control to their companies. They also expect choices."

It's a toxic stew, even in healthy corporate cultures.

Choosing to be strategic
Twice a year for the last seven years, I've had the pleasure of being a panel moderator at the Telwares CIO Global Forum, an invitation-only, off-the-record, stimulating gathering of several dozen forward-thinking CIOs drawn from a wide range of industries. Through that and other forums, I've seen the change in thinking about the IT role.

Five years ago, getting a seat at the executive table was the goal. Two years ago, the concern was dealing with assertive users demanding iPhones, Macs, and other nonstandard technologies, while handling the uncertainties brought by the use of social media; employees not only had new channels to speak out, but could do so to the entire world. Most recent, the concern has been about being relevant to the business -- an existential concern.

Their journey is the one that most IT organizations are taking, though I suspect most are where the Global Forum CIOs were two years ago. From these thinkers and others, I see IT needing to make a stark choice about its role -- a choice that will be made for it if IT decides to say the current course.

One option is to let go of technology in the front office: the hardware and software technologies users access directly. Gartner analyst Laura McClellan, for example, recently predicted that by 2017, marketing will have a larger tech budget on average than the CIO does.

This choice leads IT back to its data center roots, as a skilled tactical department: managing the network, running the big back-end software such as ERP and transaction systems, and providing (likely through outsourcing) general-purpose technologies such as Exchange, Active Directory, technical support, single sign-on, and perhaps core databases. Smart IT organizations would provide APIs and an architectural framework for integration of front-office technologies.

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