Coasting to Irrelevance

Last night I linked to an article in Campus Technology entitled “Is IT Digging Its Own Grave?” It’s focused on higher education, but it really applied across the board. According to the article IT is digging its own grave by outsourcing various parts of itself to cut costs. After enough cutting, it’s not clear what value the IT department actually adds. To be clear, this refers to organizations dedicated to IT within larger organizations, not actual information technology, which will continue to be part of our world. But when a consulting company is handling your help desk and device support, and you buy development time for the applications you need, and your servers are handled by a hosting company, what need is there for an IT department?

This has been true for awhile though, at least since the ’90s, and IT remains. What’s different this time around? This time around there are two democratizing forces that IT can’t fight: the Cloud and the rise of smartphones, specifically including iOS and Android and specifically excluding BlackBerry. How are these connected?

In the past, despite the fact that outsourcing replaced IT function, IT still controlled it. They controlled their cost, but you never saw an individual department bypass IT to outsource an IT need. That was because they couldn’t–until cloud solutions came around that is. I cannot tell you the number of stories I have heard from developers who have asked for things from IT, been turned down, and then resorted to going around IT and hosting their solution on EC2, or another cloud solution. I also cannot tell you the number of times the developers in question had a ginormous smile on their face when they told me about it. I’ve heard these stories in education, in the corporate world, within innovative technology companies, and even in government.

Developers tend to be technology savvy, and therefore more likely to do this. So it isn’t the end of IT. It’s just the beginning of the end of IT. First it will be developer hosting. Then satellite offices, tired of bad network service, will bypass corporate networks in lieu of local solutions. Backups, more networking, and more hosting will follow. An IT org doesn’t have to lose everything to be meaningless, but when more is done without them than with them, a reorganization bloodbath is soon to follow.

Then we’re on to devices, which have always been the purview of IT. You start a job, you get handed a laptop or desktop, told what software to use, and that’s it. Please sir, can I have more RAM? MOOOOORRRRREEEEE????? As an employee if your issued tech sucked, you were pretty much SOL. But enter the smartphone as envisioned by Apple and largely duplicated by Android. IT departments were used to issuing devices and the BlackBerry and its server-side architecture backed up this model. In the beginning you could only use a BlackBerry if IT had the server setup. (You could do an individual redirector, if you were allowed to install it, which you probably weren’t.) But the modern smart device bypassed this setup with one simple little thing: people bought them regardless if they worked with corporate email. Eventually pressure from CEOs and large amounts of staff led to IT having to support it. Up until now the rest of the organization didn’t really drive IT policy. You rarely if ever heard other chiefs say “we must use Windows” or “we must switch our networking infrastructure to Open Source.” (I know that in the history of the world it’s happened, but not as a concerted trend.) But you hear CEOs saying “I want my iPad to work in the office.”

So IT departments are losing control of the back end and the front end. From what I’ve seen they typically have one of two reactions:

  1. Clamp down control
  2. Blindly acquiesce to everything

Both are short term solutions that are going to kill IT in the long run. Clamping down control will just encourage end runs, and CEO mandates. Blindly doing what everyone else says proves the argument that IT is unnecessary.

What chance does the average IT department have to survive? Most of them, not a good chance. Not at the strength and influence they have had to date. If an IT department’s role to date was issuing devices and running back-end services they have no future, they’re coasting to irrelevance. They will be eroded from both ends until they are gone. I don’t think anything can stop that. The IT departments that survive will be those that do more than just keep those services running. They will be those that inject themselves into the purpose of the greater organization and provide a sustainable competitive advantage to their organizations….

Well duh.

What does that look like? I’m not sure in all cases; if I were I’d be a CIO somewhere, but I have some ideas:

In education, it will take a a focus on technology that actually puts information in students’ brains better. Also a focus on making faculty research easier, less time consuming, or with connections that haven’t been made before.

Corporate is a lot harder to define. Clearly it will take technology that improves shareholder value. But that’s so fricking broad I could say any platitude here and it will sound right. IT in the corporate world seems to be relegated to a competitive necessity and that’s it.

Government is also a crap shoot. But the next decade at least of government IT in the US will be about Existence Justification both for itself and its parent organization. Government IT departments that can help show the impact of their organization will be better off than those that cannot.

In all cases IT needs to put up or shut up in the next decade. Power based on IT department’s control is going the way of the dodo. Today’s workers want what they want, and the other C-Os in the organization agree with them. And to those bastards who wouldn’t give me more RAM I say, don’t let the door… Actually I don’t care, just get out.

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