Despite some hopeful fits and starts, the U.S. economy didn't escape the doldrums in 2011. Unemployment remained stubbornly high, the U.S. debt-ceiling crisis and budget scuffles spurred more economic uncertainty, and Europe's ongoing financial problems threatened global markets. If there's an upside, at least it's familiar territory.
"Back in 2008, nobody knew what was going to happen as a result of the global financial crisis and IT spending almost stopped overnight," says Richard Gordon, a research vice president at Gartner. "We're not in that kind of situation now. The solutions to the problems [in the U.S. and Europe] are understood and known. The question is now, is there a political way to execute and make them happen?"
Against the worrisome economic backdrop, enterprises have continued to spend on IT, albeit with caution. IT budgets grew in 2011, but not by much when the impact of exchange rates is factored in.
"If you look at constant dollars -- in other words, if you strip out exchange rates -- we've seen marginal growth in 2011 in the very low single digits, maybe 1 percent or 2 percent globally," Gordon says. Healthier growth in emerging economies compensated for sluggish growth in the U.S. and Europe, but the net effect is essentially flat IT spending in 2011 compared to 2010.
We'll see more of the same in 2012, Gordon says. "From an enterprise IT perspective, folks are planning for a period of slow economic growth."
Research firm IDC is more bullish, estimating that worldwide IT spending will grow 6.9 percent year over year to $1.8 trillion in 2012. A healthy chunk of spending -- as much as 20 percent, IDC says -- will be driven by a handful of technologies that are reshaping the IT industry: smartphones, media tablets, mobile networks, social networking, and big data analytics.
Mobility is introducing significant management and security headaches for IT, while at the same time enabling the business to increase employee productivity and improve customer service. Social networking is spawning a treasure trove of customer data, but also creating an enormous challenge for companies that want to make any sense of all that data.
Fighting for IT talent
As companies try to balance the technical challenges and opportunities, they're also grappling with a shortage of skilled professionals. IT pros with application development, virtualization or cloud computing skills are in short supply, as are those with business analytics expertise.