IT mindset must change for the coming decade

Scot Finnie says IT departments will need to think differently

Most IT organisations probably feel that they have passed through fire, water and ice over the past couple of years. The economic downturn has transformed IT in ways that aren't yet fully evident. Yet, one thing's for sure: For IT, business as usual is not coming back. (And it could be that the recession just hastened the inevitable.)

The new IT for the second decade of the third millennium was born of three hard realities:

* The recession was painful for IT. As budgets were slashed, IT infrastructure was an albatross around the necks of some CIOs. IT leaders want highly flexible alternatives that let them expand or contract capacity as market conditions dictate. As Computerworld US's Patrick Thibodeau put it in an email to me recently, IT managers "don't want to be caught, ever again, as they were in 2008 to 2009 when they were forced to make deep cuts. They want to redesign their IT infrastructure with built-in variability." The tricky part is to do that without damaging or killing key initiatives.

* Cloud is a real alternative (like it or not). One way to get that variability is by provisioning your IT operations, at least in part, with cloud or software-as-a-service systems. As it happens, SaaS-based enterprise applications and infrastructure are no longer novelties. They have become real alternatives for some IT organisations. To be sure, they still have their drawbacks. However, with IT finding its way into virtually every facet of business and with business product cycles shrinking, you can not afford to choose any option that lengthens IT implementations. There are times to build key systems and times to buy them, but when you need technology now, it is faster to lease it.Utilising SaaS or the cloud is also cheaper in the short term because there's no upfront capital expense.

* IT is business. The term "business alignment" has been bandied about by pundits for more than a decade while most of us were getting real work done. Well, here is another byproduct of the downturn: Advanced IT shops no longer think of themselves merely as cost centres. Want to hang on to your budget? How about generating some revenue? There are cutting-edge organisations such as Zappos, Progressive and Southwest Airlines whose IT departments are ahead of that curve. Whether your company embraces that trend sooner or later, this is no longer just a theory.

One thing I now know is that companies need to try new ways of buying and implementing technology. They need to teach IT people how the company makes money. Today, every employee is a business person and IT employees have skills that may help them make mental leaps that lead to powerful ideas and new revenue streams. Traditionally, IT employees haven't been trained or encouraged to think that way. What I hear from CIOs and IT executives is that many, perhaps most, CEOs aren't supporting their IT leaders in taking the risks that will lead to IT profitability.

In the new IT, executives won't limit themselves to the way things were done in the past. The business of IT today is about taking steps forward without breaking the bank, trying new ways of doing things that save or make money and choosing options that don't lock you into a big contract. This is difficult, because in many ways it is a reinvention of IT. But that is what makes it exciting.

Finnie is Computerworld US's editor in chief. He can be contacted at sfinnie@computerworld.com

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