IT departments are at the crossroads

The 'IT doesn't matter' and 'IT does matter' viewpoints are two different paths and IT workers need to choose which one to take, says Barbara Gomolski

In the next 15 years there will be unprecedented opportunities to exploit IT for competitive advantage.

In the next 15 years IT really won’t matter, and organisations will spend as little as possible in this area.

Which is it? Unfortunately, many organisations are behaving as if the latter statement were true. And many IT departments are allowing them to do so.

The problem is not that businesses and other organisations have hit the wall in terms of their ability to use IT strategically. On the contrary, most are in the midst of enormous opportunities for IT-enabled improvements. However, the traditional view of IT as a mechanism for supporting and improving existing business processes is constraining the use of — and the creative investment in — IT.

If things continue as they are IT departments are likely to be minimised, squeezed and relegated to the role of keeper of the “IT utility”. Similarly, IT managers who continue to define themselves in terms of their ability to manage technology will see their credibility and worth to the organisation erode. This is already happening in many companies today.

This gloomy fate is not inevitable, however. IT groups can evolve and play a key role in the future success of their companies. But the transformation necessary to do so will require hard work and a clear understanding of how organisations need to use IT in the future. And not all IT groups or individuals will find places in the future.

Some organisations — particularly those in research and academia — are already a step ahead. They anticipate that IT will play a significant role in the future. In fact, many scientific communities have already described their long-term IT needs in reports, papers and presentations.

For example, in its mission statement, the US National Institute of General Medical Sciences says that in ten years, “We want every person involved in the biomedical enterprise to have at their fingertips, through their keyboard, instant access to all the data sources, analysis tools, modelling tools, visualisation tools and interpretative materials necessary to do their jobs, with no inefficiencies in computation.”

In 20 years, the institute says, “We want intelligent computational agents to do complex query and modelling tasks in the biomedical computing environment, freeing up humans for creative hypothesis construction and high-level analysis and interpretation.”

That kind of roadmap should get your motor running.

The business world has been less farsighted in identifying its long-term IT needs, however. In truth, most business managers are bogged down with day-to-day operations and short-term goals. Getting them to do any long-term planning can be a challenge. Nevertheless, it is imperative that businesses consider their goals and the kind of technology that will be required to meet them.

When I look ahead ten to 15 years, I see a vastly different set of business expectations for IT. Today, those are largely centred around supporting revenue growth and lowering the cost of doing business. But in the coming years, there will be many new opportunities for organisations to exploit IT for competitive advantage.

For example, IT will be a key component in organisational innovation in industries such as biotech, manufacturing and engineering. In financial services, IT will provide myriad new opportunities in the areas of analytics and informatics.

In short, there are a host of expectations for IT on the part of the business, but they are seldom well-defined. As expectations are clarified, new opportunities will arise for IT organisations, and new roles will be created, such as bioinformaticist, digital-library specialist, human-computer interface designer, internet multilinguist, AI expert and cybersecurity expert.

Of course, organisations will continue to look to IT for reliable and low-cost infrastructure services. They will also expect the IT group to continue to drive improved organisational efficiency and business process optimisation. These traditional tasks will be augmented, however, with a host of new requirements that will vary depending on the industry in which the organisation operates.

As a result, the IT organisation of the future will not be a single department. In fact, it will be called different things in different organisations. There will be no boilerplate that businesses can follow in preparing for the future, nor will there be an organisational template for all IT organisations to use.

What’s IT to do? There are two key areas that a forward-thinking IT group should focus on: strategic change — including architecture, business process management and change management — and innovation.

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