Traditional IT shops have a lot to learn from the experiences of their much younger and more nubile counterparts. By applying some of the new deployment and organizational concepts, established IT groups can drive more innovation, particularly in the area of the front office, which has yet to be transformed by technology initiatives on the same level as back-office operations, notes Leigh McMullen, research vice president at Gartner.
For organizations that have left their startup days far behind, McMullen recommends "two-speed IT" -- where traditional IT organizations are augmented with a subgroup charged with pursuing "mission-enhancement" projects. Many of those projects are created for the front office, which Gartner defines as "the revenue or value-creating segment of the enterprise" -- think product development, marketing or sales.
Here, IT needs to play by a totally different set of rules, McMullen says, applying a startup mentality to establish lean teams and new development models. "This is a very different organization that employs different funding and governance models and operates at a different tempo," he explains.
"The things that are going to help the front office are typically smaller, not the big monolithic ERP system" -- and IT typically doesn't have the ability to do little things, McMullen says. "To get a three-person, three-week project approved inside a traditional IT organization takes longer than three weeks. It's just not built to do that."
What else can enterprises learn from the young guns just now entering IT adolescence? Read on for ideas to steal from rising stars MongoDB, Square, Plum Organics and Alex and Ani.
Idea No. 1: SaaS speeds delivery
One near-universal way startups are injecting agility into their IT infrastructure is by ditching the monolithic enterprise application in favor of SaaS models, whether it's for back-office functions like order processing or front-office tasks like collaboration and brainstorming. Rather than building out a technology stack with discrete systems like ERP or CRM, today's startup firms are more focused on delivering cloud-based business capabilities that serve a particular purpose -- for example, to help salespeople track leads or to facilitate collaboration among global team members.
"It's not just a cloud-first strategy, it's a capability strategy rather than an application focus," McMullen says. "Instead of procuring the best technology to deliver everything they need at once, they are focused on delivering what's good enough to get the mission done today. They are not hung up on the conventions of picking a platform and sticking to it."
While readily available cloud-based tools like Google Apps and Dropbox were the underpinnings of MongoDB's IT infrastructure, the firm stuck to the SaaS model as it branched out to enterprise functionality, Horowitz says. For example, the team uses Salesforce.com for CRM and is leveraging Cisco's Meraki cloud-based, managed Wi-Fi system to bring connectivity to its remote offices without having to staff up IT.
While Horowitz had initial concerns about the scalability of early SaaS tools, he says things have stabilized in the past five years and any risk associated with the cloud delivery model has dissipated. "We try to keep everything hosted and scalable as much as possible," he explains.
Under Horowitz's direction, the three-person IT team, in tandem with senior business leaders, created standard use and security policies. That allows business users to tap other SaaS tools at their discretion as long as they comply with the overall IT policies, Horowitz says.