Twenty-first century information technology has been a failure.
I don’t mean to imply that companies like Amazon, Google and Apple haven’t done amazing things with technology that have transformed our lives. Those companies, along with others viewed by many as more “old-school” in nature such as Microsoft and IBM, have truly changed our world. Twenty-first century information technology has been a failure.
Did you know that Google processes over forty thousand search queries every second? If you have never checked out www.internetlivestats.com, head over there. But buckle your seat belt, because you’ll get a tiny sense of the dizzyingly fast rate at which information is flowing around us – all the time.
Technology is being used to establish new and flexible platforms for both business and entertainment, facilitate individual and group communications, and drive rapid advancements in healthcare, energy, and other fields. Plus, I dare anyone to try to convince me that holograms aren’t cool.
Some may want to argue that the net effect of all this technological change has not actually been positive. We’re not going to get into that here, but there is no shortage of places on the web to have that debate. Whatever your thoughts on that topic, it seems unreasonable to characterize the companies mentioned above as failures.
When I say IT has been a failure, I’m referring to the “bread and butter” IT that we’ve tried to deploy inside of our businesses. The stuff that we (are supposed to) use at work, as opposed to the stuff we (are supposed to) use (mostly) at home. The stuff that the vast majority of us who are IT professionals get paid to deliver.
Look around. Our landscapes are littered with the evidence. Legacy systems are everywhere, sucking up resources and making us vulnerable. Not only are we spending more money on them than we should, they are consuming too much of our time. And we are not keeping up. In the 2015 Verizon Data Breach Investigation Report, we learn that 8 of the top 10 vulnerabilities exploited in 2014 had been known since 2002 or earlier.
When we do attempt transformational projects, their success rate is usually less than stellar. Sometimes, we sub-optimize the business processes we are trying to enable by forcing inappropriate compromises into them. At other times, we have customized applications unnecessarily, resulting in additional cost, complexity, and potential security issues.
Our end users are frustrated with us. They have become accustomed to all the flexibility and innovation in the consumer space that I discussed earlier. Since we aren’t providing it to them, they are bringing it to us, whether we are ready or not. Don’t think you are ready for the cloud? Guess again.
We’re suffering from poorly structured outsourcing arrangements. We’ve failed to find the “sweet spot” where both we and the provider benefit from the relationship, or we’ve not differentiated between specialized and commodity services and delivery models. As a result, service quality for many of us has declined.
Plus, we seem to be getting hacked like crazy.
Because of this, business leaders have to spend too much time thinking about IT, and usually not to write notes of appreciation.
I know there are exceptions to all of this, and I’m always happy to hear about them. However, I think the points above will resonate with many of you.
And as IT professionals, all of this is ultimately our fault. We’re accountable for our companies’ IT strategies, and these things have happened on our watch. It’s easy to blame spending cuts, vendors, the economy, or whatever else you want to come up with. However, we have no more excuses than any other business function. When it’s all said and done, the job is to control the things you can and react appropriately to the things you can’t. If you become overly constrained, you remove one or more constraints or you fail.
So are you ready for the good news? I believe there has never been a better time to fix things than right now, and that’s simply because there are more options available to creatively solve problems than we’ve ever had available before. All that technology that is transforming our lives as consumers has only begun to impact most of our businesses, and I think that’s true for both large and small organizations. Not only does the potential exist for us to transform how we deliver IT services, the very business models themselves that our companies seek to leverage are changing as well. What more appropriate time could there be to revisit our fundamental IT strategies?
I would propose that every organization should start formally thinking about this, if they haven’t already. At a high level, the steps are something like this:
- Revisit what your business expects from IT. What are the core processes that absolutely have to function for your business to make money? What data is the most important? How much should you spend? What is your IT risk appetite?
- Understand what you have. Where are business objectives not being met? What is the IT budget and how is it allocated? What is your current risk profile? This shouldn’t be an exhaustive inventory of every individual asset in your environment, but must be done at a sufficient level to understand how far you are from where you want to be.
- Develop a gap closure strategy. This should be a “clean sheet, anything goes” sort of exercise. Focus on simplification. If you find that you can’t develop a plan that delivers on business expectations, revisit those expectations again and adjust them as necessary. Attempting to deliver the impossible is a bad idea.
- Prioritize action steps and begin implementation. You won’t be able to fix everything all at once. Identify common threads, focus on what is most important, nail that, then move on.
- Constantly readjust to reflect changing constraints and opportunities. The four steps above should be repeated periodically at a frequency appropriate for your business cycles. At a minimum, even the largest organizations should step through this analysis every year, even if only to validate the underlying assumptions.
There is a lot of work buried in each of those activities, and they all require a comprehensive perspective on IT that unifies applications, infrastructure, security, governance, and sourcing perspectives. It can, and likely will, be very difficult. However, the only way to find the hard answers is to ask the hard questions.
Turning things around won’t be easy for us. In many cases, we’ll have to re-earn the business credibility to drive the changes we’ll find we need. We may have to break down some of the internal silos we’ve built and make some difficult compromises.
But we don’t really have a choice, do we? It’s our job.
And it is time to get started.