Preventing the Demise of the IT Department

ZapThink has long championed the role of Information Technology (IT) and the information technologists that turn IT resources into capabilities. However, we are especially champions of the users of IT, notably the business. After all, if it weren’t for business users, there would be little funding and relevance for IT. Yet, we must distinguish between IT and the IT organization within the enterprise. Whereas IT represents the assets business wants to leverage, the IT department serves as an organizational structure by which the IT needs of the business can be met. Simply put, the IT department is a means to an end… or at least it should be.

One of the frequently repeated complaints we’ve heard over our past nine years is that the IT department is increasingly non-responsive to changing business needs. Complexity, fragility, unpredictability, and unreliability all conspire to turn even the simplest of business requests for IT capabilities into a months-long, expenditure-heavy activity. And until very recently, there was really very little that the lines of business could do about that. Every business-IT interaction becomes a negotiation, with business trying to wrangle as much functionality as the time and budget would allow, and the IT department trying to limit new requirements so as to maximize the impact on an already over-stretched infrastructure.

As we discussed in our SOA: Enabling the Long Tail of IT ZapFlash, one of the roles of Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) is to change this sad reality by enabling business user empowerment of a sort we have not seen before. But, the purpose of this ZapFlash is not to iterate again on that point. The main issue we are seeing now is that far too many companies still see SOA as a luxury that they can afford to postpone in tough economic times. Looming on the horizon, however, are a variety of technology and cultural changes that are combining to force rapid change in the IT industry. The amazing and rapid evolution of online IT capabilities is now conspiring to put the very future of the IT department in question as users become empowered to solve their own problems without involving the IT department within the enterprise. As we first stated in 2006, IT must Service-orient and empower their users or be doomed. This is not hype or hyperbole — this is now a reality for IT. Those companies resisting SOA will undoubtedly put the nails in their own IT coffins.

“You, IT, are Competing with the Cloud”
Last week, I recorded a podcast with Dana Gardner and a few other notable analysts and experts as part of the thought-provoking Briefings Direct series. In the podcast, which will be published in a few weeks, I discussed that individuals now have so much capability available to them through Web 2.0, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), and Cloud-based applications that they can not only develop significantly powerful applications, but do so faster, with better quality, and less costly than they can do so within their own IT departments. In fact, many of these web-based applications are targeted to relatively non-sophisticated users with simple interfaces that empower users to develop complex applications without having to know how to code. In that podcast, I asked, “At what point does the line of business get frustrated enough with the cost and complexity of their own IT departments that they resolve their problems using capabilities outside the network rather than inside. Is the IT department in danger of becoming obsolete?”

To further reinforce that point, ZapThink recently attended two major vendor events: IBM’s IMPACT 2009 and Software AG’s SOA Summit 2009, with speakers that quite coincidentally echoed the above sentiment. At IBM’s event, a number of speakers made the point that the potency provided by Cloud Computing capabilities enables business users, not career technologists, to develop very sophisticated applications at remarkably low costs due to the pay-as-you-go model and virtualization of IT resources. Even more remarkably, at Software AG’s SOA Summit, Kevin Flowers, Director of Enabling Technology at Coca-Cola Enterprises stated in stark terms that “you, IT, are competing with the Cloud.” What he meant was that the “cloud” (which in his terms referred to the general capabilities of Web 2.0, SaaS, and Cloud Computing as a whole) provided such tempting capabilities that if the IT department can’t rise to the challenge and equally empower its users, the users will go elsewhere to get their needs met at potentially greater quality, lesser cost, and in shorter time.

Enable User Empowerment … or your Users will go Elsewhere
Now, this vision of the self-empowered business user is still a ways off given security, privacy, and access to local data concerns, but these challenges are purely technical. The real issue is an organizational one: will a business audience already fed up with IT’s inability to meet business imperatives authorize their non-IT users to get their needs met by outside providers? If so, Cloud, SaaS, and Web 2.0 companies will quickly rise to the challenge (and newfound revenue streams) and solve the aforementioned technology challenges much faster than the IT department can react to the threat. Therefore, it makes sense to revisit two themes that are a persistent thread in ZapThink conversations: using SOA as a means to enable business empowerment, and dealing with the rapidly emerging “digital divide”.

On the first note, we must re-emphasize the point that it is not IT’s role to own and manage the applications on behalf of the business. Rather, its role is to enable business users to consume and compose a wide array of Services that IT manages as simply as possible. Enlightened IT organization should see emerging Web 2.0 / SaaS / Cloud (“Cloud in the large”) capabilities offered by third-party vendors both as a source of opportunities for Service deployment and consumption as well as competition. Every evolution and advancement of the Cloud in the large raises the bar for what is expected of internal IT capabilities. To respond to this reality, the IT department must stop its incessant focus on the “T” in information technology and redouble its efforts on the “I” part. This means that the focus on abstract, easy-to-consume, easy-to-compose Services is more important than ever and is the primary goal of IT, rather than a nice-to-have addition.

In addition, we continue to remind companies that the IT experience that their business people experience away from the office — on their handheld devices, Internet browsing experience, and other devices — is rapidly becoming more sophisticated and powerful than their enterprise IT experience. This is the true “digital divide” that we often refer to in our conversations with end users. Indeed, the enterprise IT experience is downright embarrassing. Why is it that when we’re at home we get the luxury of using apps as sophisticated as Facebook, iPhone, Tivo, and Google Docs, while at work we have to suffer decades-old user interfaces and frustratingly unproductive experiences? This rapidly widening digital divide between the IT-at-home and the IT-at-work experience is threatening to once and for all put IT on the much-deserved defensive and justify its millions of dollars of expenditure for systems that pale in usability comparison against those that are either free or cost pennies on the enterprise IT expenditure dollar.

The ZapThink Take
As Miko Matsumura, Deputy CTO of Software AG put it at Software AG’s SOA Summit 2009, “evolution is about survival.” SOA, along with Cloud and other emerging architectural approaches to agility, represent an evolution in the way that users work with IT assets. But, the entire purpose of evolution is to avoid a certain death. Organisms evolved to deal with environmental realities that, without their evolution, would have meant their extinction. Likewise, organizations need to evolve to deal with the reality of the IT landscape that requires agility to avoid a certain death. From this perspective, if the business finds that they can get their IT needs met without the IT organization’s involvement, the IT organization will die. IT without business support is an impossibility.

Trying to avoid, deny, restrain, or otherwise negate the inexorable march to Service-oriented, user empowered IT is an exercise in futility. Those organizations that think they can successfully survive in this new environment by canceling their SOA projects are stringing their own nooses. CIOs who are so short-sighted to believe that the business will accept the current inefficient, inflexible, expensive, unreliable, and unpredictable IT systems of today while ignoring the obvious alternatives should be strung up on the nooses they have set up for themselves. While technology challenges remain to make the vision of agility an uncontestable reality, technology challenges are the easiest of all to solve. When the business begins to express their desires, will the IT organization rise to the challenge or face inevitable demise?