Keeping IT and business in sync is not a new goal -- it's been discussed for years. Finding a way to do it is the hard part. Even when the business removes political and functional barriers, there are serious limitations in how quickly and effectively IT can respond.
The limitations of legacy IT relate to the difficulty of effecting change. Adding geographic diversity, integrating new partners, increasing capacity, and bringing new capabilities online are all incredibly time-consuming tasks. A modern "composable" IT strategy, however, enables you to buy software-as-a-service or cloud resources in five different countries. You can build your infrastructure in a combination of environments, like co-location, hosting, and cloud datacenters, and you can partner for IT human resources when necessary.
These "modern IT" options -- using outside services -- position your company to respond at a moment's notice to changing business demands. Any of these options can be acquired in bite-sized chunks and utilized as needed. In legacy IT, the time needed to acquire new software or datacenter capacity has historically been measured in months or years, and that pace is now simply too slow.
Author Jonathan Murray calls this new agile business the "composable enterprise." The fact is, businesses have historically always acted faster than IT, and new digitally driven business models will only widen the chasm. Simple improvements in how IT is delivered won't fix this problem. Comparing a traditional business to a composable enterprise is like comparing a herd of reasonably well-managed cats to a school of fish, in which every part of the business can lead or follow while remaining consistently in sync. IT will need much more than cool technology to become part of the "school."
People versus technology
It's easy to accept the idea of the composable enterprise. It's more difficult to internalize the impact that designing and running a composable enterprise will have on staff and technology adoption. Li & Fung Trading, a clothing distributor, provides an excellent example of taking this composable business model to the extreme. For a given clothing order, Li & Fung might get yarn from Korea, buttons from China, weaving in Taiwan, and assembly in Pakistan. For the next order, it might use a completely different set of suppliers. Joe Weinman covers this topic in detail in his book, Cloudonomics (Wiley, 2012).
[Want to learn more about reorienting and building your IT staff? Read 3 IT Lessons From Entrepreneurs.]
When you consider the need to move teams, apply short-term contract support, replace suppliers up and down the chain, move money, and adopt new applications -- all in real time -- you can begin to see the issues traditional businesses face. I've led IT infrastructure teams that struggled to implement virtualization because the finance department couldn't decide the best way to bill individual departments. Moving to a composable enterprise is magnitudes more complex than figuring out chargeback billing.
With change comes a plethora of problems involving responsibility, budget, quality control, schedules, and fear of change, to name only a few. Now imagine trying to tackle any one of these problems with a traditional fixed IT infrastructure and legacy applications. You may not realize it yet, but the need to become a composable enterprise simply to stay competitive might justify retiring legacy applications ahead of their standard upgrade/retirement schedule.
Rethinking IT leadership
Assuming change is constant, the best way to help employees embrace it is through effective hiring, training, and rewards. Most reward and recognition strategies used by IT groups tend to focus on the "hero" -- someone with deep skills in a specific area. This can cause what's known as "server hugger's disease," a term that refers to the notion of "owning" stuff and being the best at a specific technology rather than at bringing about improvements. To discourage this mindset, it's essential to prepare staff in advance and provide training, recognition, and rewards aimed at solving problems.
IT leaders must be incented differently, too. Instead of being rewarded for having a large team or for building a big data center, for example, leaders should be evaluated by how well they've developed a business-focused team or how efficiently they can deliver complex critical resources. Rapid change and increased integration with the business also means that IT leaders will need to focus on sharing resources, and become more strategic about hiring and staff development.
The composable enterprise -- based on services outside the enterprise datacenter -- is where business is going. If you're not headed there it's because your business has already failed. Unfortunately, there's no "before and after" picture that shows the benefits of a business adopting a CE model -- but resisting the move is like refusing to have a website. It will prove self-destructive and ultimately fatal.
I don't believe there's room for debate on this matter. Mobility, cloud, SaaS, wearable tech, the Internet of Things, and other technologies are influencing all aspects of our work, our businesses, and our lives. The ability to turn on a dime and deliver new requirements overnight while maintaining quality and margins is only going to become more imperative.
A school of fish
IT in a composable enterprise functions with a "get out of the way of the business" mindset. They respond with "where and how many" instead of "that will take twelve months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars." Companies can no longer afford to adapt their business strategies around the inherent inadequacies of legacy IT. We must begin acting in and thinking of business as if all its functions are fish within a larger school. Only after we've implemented processes, people, and tools that allow each group to take the lead or follow the leader in real time will we know our business has transformed.
Cloud Connect Summit, March 31 – April 1 2014, offers a two-day program colocated at Interop Las Vegas developed around "10 critical cloud decisions." Cloud Connect Summit zeroes in on the most pressing cloud technology, policy and organizational decisions & debates for the cloud-enabled enterprise. Cloud Connect Summit is geared towards a cross-section of disciplines with a stake in the cloud-enabled enterprise. Register for Cloud Connect Summit today.