The Future of IT

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 01-23-2013

The Future of IT

By Samuel Greengard

The history of IT is littered with innovative and disruptive technologies. In the 1960s, mainframe computers revolutionized the way businesses managed information. By the 1980s, word processors and PCs automated office tasks, and spreadsheets yielded new insights into better business practices. Starting in the 1990s, the Internet and mobility unleashed a torrent of change that put the IT department at the center of the enterprise. Powerful and efficient enterprise systems were the order of the day.

But these developments pale in comparison to the tsunami of change washing over IT organizations today. The introduction of iPads and iPhones, social media, big data, and cloud computing have unleashed profound changes that far exceed the impact of each of these devices or systems alone. The combined impact of these technologies is redefining the way organizations and people interact. It's also revolutionizing how businesses harness data, information and knowledge and put them into play. "The IT department is undergoing a remarkable transformation," says David Nichols, Americas CIO Services Leader for consulting firm Ernst & Young.

Make no mistake, IT organizations must adapt and evolve like never before. Over the next few years, the role of IT will change further as the consumerization of IT marches forward and cloud computing provide more powerful ways to manage everything from infrastructure to enterprise applications. "The interrelationship between technologies is creating unprecedented waves of disruption," observes Bill Briggs, global lead at Deloitte Consulting. "It's forcing organizations to rethink everything and embrace a post-digital world filled with new risks and opportunities."

What will the IT organization of the future look like? What can CIOs and other senior IT executives do to prepare for fundamentally different roles? And what is required to reach the promised land of a more strategic IT department? There are no easy answers, but one thing is perfectly clear: Feel-good slogans and talk about innovation, agility and flexibility won't get the job done. CIOs must have a deeper and more intrinsic understanding of how to navigate this brave new world. It's a place where information technology touches everything and everybody all the time.

Reinventing Roles

Over the last half-century, computers have become infinitely more powerful, software has advanced and mobile devices have put information in front of customers and employees and provided them with powerful tools. The enormous popularity of iPhones, iPads and other mobile hardware and software has yanked control of IT away from enterprises and put consumers firmly in charge. The consumerization of IT and the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) movements have wrested control of IT decision-making away from CIOs and enterprises.

The ramifications are profound. "Today, non-IT people, including business executives and consumers, are either making decisions or involved in the decision-making process," says Didier Bonnet, senior vice president for Capgemini Consulting. What's more, "many of the IT systems of the past are too expensive and too cumbersome for today's business environment. IT is being forced to adopt entirely different models and play a different role as the fundamental model for IT changes."

The Future of IT

What this means for CIOs is that strategies, approaches and technologies that worked well in the past must often be tossed into the digital dustbin. Today's enterprise requires different leadership skills, openness to new ideas and innovation, and an ability to connect IT dots in fundamentally different ways. It also requires new governance methods. The task is no longer to simply align IT with the business, it's to drive integration and data sharing throughout the enterprise.

At Bank of America, Global Technologies & Operations executive Cathy Bessant is working to build the IT department of the future. Customers and employees, she says, are demanding very different tools and functionality than only a few years ago. Mobility is at the center of this trend. "People expect to accomplish tasks on their mobile devices and they respond to value-added differentiation," she explains. Moreover, "the price for not delivering a good user experience is extraordinarily high. The rise of social media has tilted the power structure distinctly toward the consumer."

Within this environment, agility is the sun around which all planets revolve. IT organizations must eliminate barriers to scale and find ways to build an infrastructure that can adapt and evolve rapidly, Bessant says. In addition, IT must find ways to connect legacy systems--including mainframes, storage arrays and databases--into an infrastructure stack that can provide the required elasticity for tablet and smartphone apps, social media analytics, location-based services, and an array of other post-PC tools and features. "IT must lay a foundation that allows brilliant and creative people to introduce innovative ideas and solutions," says Bessant.

Consequently, a growing number of organizations are looking to migrate to new IT skill sets. Some outsource infrastructure and enterprise applications to a cloud or hosted services provider that specializes in IT as well as associated security functions. It's then up to IT staff to work with business executives in order to handle strategic mapping and streamline systems and channels. At the same time, many organizations are hiring developers that specialize in app development as well as the fundamentals of social media, crowdsourcing and other emerging tools.

But the demands on IT don't stop there. Bessant says IT must be literate in advanced data-mining techniques and rapid cycle testing. "It's critical to find ways to make things work without introducing the negatives when they don't work," she explains. "It's not good enough to say that innovation is important, it's essential to take a focused approach that actually introduces innovation." At some companies, this means introducing small intrapreneurial teams that can assemble and dissemble in days or weeks. At others, it means crowdsourcing solutions and using reverse mentoring and internal social media tools to share expertise and ideas. All organizations must use metrics and analytics to "relentlessly measure and document results so they can be applied in a meaningful way," she says.

Ernest & Young's Nichols says the role of the CIO is also shifting, particularly as business executives pull the trigger on decisions about technology and purchase their own cloud services and infrastructure. By 2014, CIOs will have relinquished control of 25 percent of their organizations' IT spending, according to a 2011 Gartner report. Says Nichols, "We're beginning to see new reporting structures for the CIO. In some cases, they're unplugging from the CFO and CEO and interacting with a newly defined and elevated CTO role that provides a technology vision for the organization. CIOs must be careful that their role isn't reduced to maintenance and operations."

The Future of IT

A New Order of IT

Forrester Research predicts the IT organization of 2020 will only vaguely resemble what's in place today. Powerful and easy-to-acquire tools and technologies will usher in an era of business self-sufficiency. Tech-savvy managers will increasingly control and provision their own services and solutions. IT departments, as a result, will typically be smaller, leaner and more strategic. Deloitte's Briggs notes that as organizations turn to the cloud and adopt infrastructure-as-a-service and software-as-a-service models, project management and portfolio management will become necessary skills for senior IT executives. Ultimately, he says, "CIOs must lead the charge and become the visionary for exploiting all the disruption."

It's a concept that resonates at Cars.com, an online automobile shopping site that attracts upwards of 20 million unique visitors per month. Cars.com enterprise architect James Houska sees a new future of IT unfolding before his eyes. "End users are demanding new features and services faster," he says. This has resulted in Cars.com ramping up from approximately 30 releases and updates per year to more than 300. "There is an extreme acceleration in the business and how we leverage information technology,” says Houska. “There is a greater need for automation. We're being forced to become more agile and innovative in whatever we do."

This environment, Houska says, necessitates the use of "game-changing technology" such as the cloud and outside IT services. App development is now measured in days rather than in months. Application performance management and other tools that provide metrics have emerged as a necessity. For example, Cars.com has turned to service providers such as Compuware APM and Splunk to cull vast amounts of data and ensure that Web and mobile systems are performing at optimum levels. Houska believes the future of IT is rooted in the CIO and IT department serving as thought leaders for technology. The goal should be connect data and services from different departments and systems into a unified and seamless enterprise IT strategy.

To be sure, those that cling to the command and control model of the past are destined to face severe turbulence. Today, success hinges on a lean, agile, flexible and intrapreneurial IT model that's inextricably linked to business needs. It also requires lots of experimentation, says Bonnet of Capgemini Consulting. In this upside down post-PC world, risk must be viewed as a friend and change as a potential competitive advantage. "We have entered a new phase of enterprise IT that is less dependent on technical skills than on strategic vision,” says Nichols. “The IT department of the future must be equipped to function in a real-time, fast-changing environment that drives the business like never before."