The specter raised by Nicholas Carr in 2003 -- that IT doesn't matter -- has risen again, summoned by the two prevailing trends of the day: cloud computing and the consumerization of IT.
CIOs today would do well to read the original Harvard Business Review essay, in which Carr argues that IT is becoming a commodity the same way rail transportation or electric power did. The essay has well-known flaws, the worst of which is Carr's narrow characterization of IT as network, compute, and storage infrastructure. But in at least one respect Carr was prescient: The commoditization of those core infrastructure functions is now very real.
[ Also see "Stewardship, not ownership: It's time for IT to give up on control" by InfoWorld's Bob Lewis. | And read Eric Knorr's "2011: The year personal computing will reinvent itself." ]
For an increasing number of workloads, it matters less and less whether you spin up VMs in Amazon's data center or in your own -- or even whether you license applications on premise or rent them from an SaaS provider. Today's key questions are "How fast can I get it?" and "What's the TCO?"
At the same time, CIOs are under assault from a commoditizing force Carr never anticipated: Consumer devices that users bring to work. IT has been forced to accommodate mobile devices tied to commercial networks because smartphones and tablets deliver huge gains in productivity.
CIOs who try to erect a Maginot line against commoditization, and insist that all IT from infrastructure to mobile devices must stay under their complete control, hobble their business' competitiveness and limit their careers. At the same time, no company would tolerate the chaos of lines of business buying and deploying their own technologies without regard to security, integration, or economies of scale.
Finding a middle ground between those extremes is part, but not all, of becoming a modern CIO. We're entering a period of accelerated change, one that includes the breakup of the Windows desktop paradigm. Here's my free-as-in-beer advice to CIOs, CTOs, and other technology leaders:
Become a technology strategist. The era of the CIO who simply "keeps the joint running" is over. Just as good business strategists need to think beyond the next quarter and explore new opportunities, IT leaders need to look for emerging technologies that accelerate innovation, from promising cloud applications to internal app stores to advanced virtualization management. Standing still isn't a safe place to be anymore.
Build a service catalog. Gone are the days when you can simply serve the business stakeholders who bark loudest with one-off, end-to-end infrastructure and apps to meet their needs. Technology leaders need to step up and say "You want to drive the cost out of operations? Then give me the resources up front to provision shared services and the authority to make every appropriate department use them so I get maximum economies of scale." Embrace commoditization when you can and you'll free up resources.
Cultivate your developers. When infrastructure becomes commoditized, developers are the big winners. Dev and test and deployment cycles shorten dramatically, leaving more time for developers to interact with the business, engage in agile practices, and create applications that accelerate business processes. Coming out of a disastrous recession, the No. 1 imperative is to jump on new business opportunities. Create a development culture where you can deliver apps to meet that challenge with all appropriate speed.
Practice postmodern security. Networks are permeable. In fact, most are already infected. The perimeter still needs to be protected, of course, but concentrate your efforts on authentication, access control, encryption, and other security technologies that protect data and applications.
Empower your users. In most businesses, the most valuable employees are often the ones who have the initiative to provision their own technology. If they're not going to wait for IT to build what they want and go to the cloud instead, don't clamp down; help them find the right providers and create a framework for provisioning instead. Rather than ban mobile devices, create policies that enable people to use them safely -- and explore new technologies like mobile client hypervisors.
The truth is that every part of IT matters -- but a smooth-running elastic infrastructure is the new baseline. To stay strategic, CIOs need to drive cost out of infrastructure and shift investment to technology and development that grows the business. And when IT makes users its ally, and shares control over technology, IT isn't diminished -- it just broadens and deepens its integration with business.