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August 18, 2014

ITEXPO Highlights the Changing Role of IT

It is difficult to say what was the single most interesting take-away of the event. From the plethora of great new technology on the show floor, including our “best in show” winners, to StartupCamp9, the M2M Battle of the Platforms, updates on where we are with SDN and NFV (we are making progress on both) and the sessions of ITEXPO (News - Alert) and all of the collocated events, let’s just say there was a lot to see and hear. 

However, what struck me the most was not the technology per se, but what our various end user information executives had to say about the changing nature of their roles and responsibilities. I have already commented on the government CIO panel. Plus, you should also read my colleagues’ coverage of the keynote presentations by the CIOs of AARP and the American Cancer Society. What was interesting, and the tie that binds all of the CIO observations together, is that while the industry likes to talk about technology revolutions, the most important thing going on in Information Communications Technology (ICT) right now has to do with people.

The historic role of IT departments was to keep the lights on, the company up and communicating and mitigating security risks. Today, that role along with the above, much of which is becoming thankfully automated, given the importance placed on things like enhancing the customer experience and striving to improve workflows (responsiveness and operational efficiencies) in a real-time world, now is about business process optimization (BPO). It is also about even turning IT into a business services organization which can be leveraged to create sustainable business advantage. 

What all of this entails, as each of our speakers emphasized, was the need for a change in culture and skills. Interestingly, both are seen as having a sense of urgency if success is to be achieved. This is a far cry from the not too distant past where IT had the luxury of implementing long-term projects and a workforce of techies who controlled technology use inside corporations and were skilled plumbers. Now IT needs to include a beefed up force of DevOps individuals who not only can create, test and help with the deployment of sophisticated and customized apps for their organizations, data scientists who can figure out how to leverage “big data” for business purposes, security specialists and most importantly people who understand the business of business and where technology creates value way above being “cool.” 

The latter point about having an appreciation of “the business” has been a talking point for years, but now it is an imperative. Part of the reason is the explosion of BYOD in organizations and the distrust it has engendered between IT and end users as workers look to the cloud and public app stores for tools they need to be more productive and refuse to wait for IT’s approval.  Part is that in a real-time world not keeping up with and accommodating the accelerating pace of change in markets and customer requirements can be fatal.

Some lessons learned

While the insights shared during the keynote addresses would make a great book (and the video of the sessions will soon be up on so keep your browsers bookmarked to our video site), I wanted to share with you a slide from the presentation by Jay Farro, American Cancer Society, CIO about his organization’s transformation journey over the past several months. 

Image via American Cancer Society (click to enlarge)

The bullet points should resonate with any IT executive as you look to transform your organization to be more agile, responsive and aligned with business objectives. The first four points are huge. IT needs to leverage quick wins to restore IT morale and re-establish trust with end users. Transparency is something to embrace not fear. And, knowing the culture of your organization and its appetite for change are critical for IT to have a seat at the table when strategy and budgets for an organization are front and center, as is contextual and situational awareness of what is doable given an entities unique requirements. This means understanding both outward and inward facing challenges.

Yes, the role of IT is changing and doing so rapidly and profoundly. While many are saying that much of new technology is designed to eliminate IT this is only partially true and not a bad thing. Indeed, as our speakers emphasized over and over again, the embrace of change in many ways elevates the importance of IT to an organization, and recalibration is necessary and in the long-term a good if painful thing.

That said, the journey needs to be undertaken. It should be embarked upon sooner rather than later if you are not already engaged in the process. Finally, as Farro’s chart exposes, re-alignment can enable an organization to not just accomplish C-level demands to do more with less, but actually free up resources to help fuel even more productive activities. 

The thought and execution leaders that imparted their wisdom with attendees made the cogent point that this is as much about changing out people, changing peoples’ attitudes, changing skills and changing both IT and corporate culture to be aligned with business objectives and market needs. The open question is whether IT can keep up with the need for speed in a changing world, and whether we as a community are investing in the skills that IT people will need going forward to serve the needs of the future. There is certainly no shortage of opportunity as the pace of technology innovation increases, it would be a shame if those who actually implement it can’t keep up.

It is arguable whether we have reached a tipping point when it comes to finding the right people to get the job done. It does appear, as the keynoters said, that if we are not at a tipping point we are close, and the role and value of IT are certainly in a state of disruption. This is a big story with lots of facets to watch. After years of evangelism about the need for IT to change, it is happening. How fast and by whom with what impacts the changing nature of IT will cause, is going to be a major metric for measuring overall enterprise performance. Stay tuned!       

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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