Business Technology: A New Way Of Thinking About IT
The IT community--the companies that make all this incredible IT stuff, and the companies that buy it--must shift their focus from the stuff itself to the processes, transformations, and other innovations that the stuff can support. (Part 1 of a three-part series.)
"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." - Sir Winston Churchill, November 1942
We are indeed at the end of a beginning: the end of the time when "IT" was mostly about the T and only somewhat about the I. But that beginning--those early chapters in a complex story that's just beginning to unfold--should not be tossed aside or regarded as time and money poorly spent, or as an indictment of the brilliant technology represented by the T. For without this beginning--without all this technology--the next parts of the journey would not be possible.
Forgive the metaphors; I just thought that Churchill's exhortation captures perfectly the transition that's occurring today on a scale that will dwarf what we've all been through over the past decade. We are seeing all around us the IT industry evolve rapidly and sometimes a bit chaotically from a relentless focus on stuff--hardware and software and routers and PCs and apps and plug-ins and patches and workarounds and modules and OSes and ERPs and nodes and towers and SDKs and racks and RACs and on and on--to an objective centered upon the slightly less tangible but richer realm of business processes, business transformation, and business value and opportunity.
In the recent past--in the beginning--this industry was about making and selling stuff: cool stuff, powerful stuff, revolutionary stuff, expensive stuff, complex stuff, and always more and more stuff. That was OK; in fact, it was more than OK--it was astoundingly important and successful and triumphant, and anyone who'd doubt that need only look at the power of the U.S. economy and that of many other innovative countries around the globe. Look at the massive shift that's taken place in the buyer/seller equation: The power has moved dramatically to the buyer's side, and it will not go back. And underneath all of this progress rests that stuff: the technology that fulfills the promise of and does the bidding of business innovation.
Amazon.com has a new chief technology officer, Werner Vogels, who revealed the appointment yesterday on his "All Things Distributed" Weblog. As CTO, Vogels is responsible for Amazon's technology vision. "For those of you who know my previous work it will not be a surprise that in this vision there will be a strong focus on using the massive scalability of the distributed systems architecture to achieve robust performance and high-availability," he writes.
But as we neared the end of this beginning, too many of us felt that the answer to any question was simply to buy more stuff or buy the newest stuff or buy somebody else's stuff. And for a while we forgot that the stuff can only be as good (or as bad) as the thinking that goes into its deployment. Automating outdated, inefficient, and wasteful processes will only yield somewhat faster and slightly-less-expensive outdated, inefficient, and wasteful results. The time had come for us to stop relying on the stuff, and instead to force ourselves to attack that other element that's vastly more complex and much more difficult to figure out than the stuff is: human behavior, expressed in business processes.
So now that we're through the beginning, and now that we've entered the next phase for which the beginning prepared us, we have to realize that the game is no longer about selling or buying more stuff but rather about enhancing the ability of our customers to achieve their strategic objectives. Any discussion relating to IT that deviates from that new imperative is irrelevant. If, in the single-minded pursuit of helping customers achieve strategic objectives, we find that stuff needs to be bought, great; if not, what are the other value propositions that can be delivered? Can we shift the debate from technical arguments about the superiority of this platform or that technology or some new version to one predicated on increasing nimbleness, squeezing out latency in all its forms, putting the customer at the center of every consideration, making real-time decision-making real, and thinking about stuff only when it's specifically needed to fulfill one of these new objectives?
Attitudes will need to be adjusted all around. IT vendors, whose business plans until recently were pragmatically based on the willingness and indeed the eagerness of companies to buy vast quantities of stuff because it was newer or faster or cheaper or more totally indispensable, need to rethink their value propositions to their customers and prospects. Those customers need to show that the discipline forced on them by the downturn of 2001-2003 won't be tossed aside in today's stronger economy, and that while they'll be happy to buy lots and lots of stuff well into the future, those purchases will be made only when they can directly enhance their value to their customers. We in the media need to do a better job of digging into and analyzing the ways in which IT stuff is being blended with vertical-market knowledge, business-process knowledge, customer knowledge, outsourcing alternatives, and innovative approaches so that the stuff is seen not as the end, but as a means to a richer end.
And if we can all do that, this beginning--this crazy, turbulent, exuberant, wrenching, and joyous beginning--will have been well worth it.
Next week: two leading "IT" companies lead the way into the next phase.
The following week: More examples of how vendors and customers are undergoing this transformation, and what they think their results will be. Want to share your own examples? I'd love to see them--send them to email@example.com. Thanks.
To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Bob Evans's forum on the Listening Post.
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