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IT departments can create a lot of value when they take responsibility for Integration Technology, bringing together the activities of people across the organisation and beyond its increasingly porous boundaries. 

But if they sit behind their firewalls chanting verses from the ITIL, then they deserve to die.

I keep hearing rumours that IT is dead.

Web developers point at their sites, their social media, their apps, and explain that none of this is ever touched by the dinosaurs of IT. Collaboration strategists show off their taxonomies, their search schema, their documents shared via numerous clandestine online services. “This is all beyond the wisdom of IT,” they say. 

And from the other direction, lean and agile software developers question the value of a department that has set itself aside from “the Business”.

Yet somehow every organisation I go to still has an IT department.

Many organisations are unhappy with their IT department. They complain that it’s too expensive. They complain about the service levels. (No matter what the service levels are, they could always be better.) 

Often they like the individual people they deal with, but hate the attitude of the overall department, obscurantist, arrogant, driven by processes and policies rather than by human warmth.

Yet they continue to tolerate this beast within their midst. How can this be so?

When you look at IT departments, they mostly do three things:

  1. They feed and water the servers, networks and other machinery that runs a scary proportion of any organisation’s activities and communications these days.
  2. They support people to use the complex, unintuitive interfaces presented by above machinery.
  3. They build and integrate new capabilities on top of that machinery.

The promoters of IT’s imminent death point out that the importance of (1) is declining, eventually the great gods in the cloud will take over this activity (Overlook the fact that those gods are mostly IT people. They’re cloudy IT people, hidden from view, where we don't need to talk to them. So they’re OK.)

Likewise, they wave their iPads and expound on the glories of “consumerisation”. Technologies that can be used without the aid of three tiers of helpdesk support are finally emerging. 

User support has been supplanted by decent design Another nail in IT’s coffin.

And as for integration, well, IT is so slow we might as well do it ourselves anyway.

I think this misses the point. IT clearly is changing. Infrastructure has indeed become something akin to a commodity, requiring little management effort, and a good candidate for outsourcing. (Although you should never underestimate the skills required to manage even the best of outsourcing partners.) 

We are finally starting to design devices and applications which are vaguely usable. (Or is that we’ve finally started breeding a generation who is comfortable with technology?)

But integration isn’t going to go away any time soon.

Few organisations can run without their commodity infrastructure and applications, but they get no real competitive advantage from these applications: by their very nature, commodities are available to everyone. 

The only way to gain any advantage from IT is through integrating and extending applications in new ways, and through using the resultant information, insight and capabilities to drive new behaviours within the organisation. And in a digital world, it’s increasingly difficult to compete without doing this.

In this world, integrating diverse applications and devices has become more than a necessary evil. Advantage comes from embracing the diversity and using it to evolve new products and services. 

Someone needs to know how to weave these applications into a coherent whole. Someone needs to know how to extract and integrate the data and turn it into something meaningful.  Someone needs to facilitate people across the organisation to think about how to use these systems and data to further its goals.

IT could be well placed to fill this role. It has the technical skills. It already touches every part of the organisation. It just needs to be prepared to deal with the messiness, both human and technical, of evolutionary development. 

Survival will come not through locking down diversity via policies and standards, but through actively engaging with diversity and finding ways for the organisation to benefit from it.

This is where I think effective IT departments are going, they’re becoming the integration team.

If IT fails to do this, if it sits behind its firewalls, trying to protect itself by chanting verses from the ITIL, then it will indeed die. 

We need firewalls, and ITIL contains much of value, but IT can only create real value when it helps integrate the activities of people across the organisation (and beyond the organisation’s increasingly porous boundaries).

Three cheers for the Chief Integration Officer!

Graham Oakes

Published 22 December, 2011 by Graham Oakes

Graham Oakes helps people untangle complex technology, processes, relationships and governance. He is contributor to Econsultancy.

43 more posts from this author

Comments (4)

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David @ Buy Books

My experience with an IT department in a large corporation is that they are just like any other cog in the corporate wheel - they are empire-building. Do away with large IT deparments. Hire a handful of consultants and reward them with getting the job done with the least number of IT staff.

almost 5 years ago

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Andrew

I'm hoping the over-use of IT department and staff stereotyping is hopefully an immense amount of sarcasm (its hard to tell), highlighting that most people don't really "know" what IT "does".

The overall theme of this post in terms of IT departments within marketing agencies is correct though - its role is changing.

IT is often seen as 'expensive' because it's usually not revenue generating. Many of IT's "cost savings" are hidden savings.

That extra couple of GB of RAM for your laptop? Making it a bit faster? Might save you a couple of working days time a year (or weeks even) because it now boots faster, loads applications faster, and is easier to use,etc.
But its hard to quantify those savings.

That expensive firewall and rack server that protects your network? It's probably blocked countless attempts to breach your network - potentially saving the entire company from going under (imagine loosing all your server based data...).
Again, its hard to quantify as its a preventative measure.

A hard-core of IT staff will always be needed, at the most basic level, to support members of staff who use on-site machinery (PCs, Laptops, etc) - as well as organise the connectivity (as you cited) between systems, etc.

Additionally, we all want cloud services to be amazing and work - but sometimes its not appropriate for companies who want close control over their services and data.

Oh, plus remote services such as 'the cloud', aren't immune to failure, as you yourself posted about:
http://econsultancy.com/uk/blog/7784-how-reliable-is-the-cloud

There is never any 'death' of IT, and there never will be - there is only change - and they're used to it.

(P.S. we're actually secretly taking over, by ensuring IT is entirely pervasive to life.. ;))

almost 5 years ago

Stephen Thair

Stephen Thair, Director at Seriti Consulting

There seems to be a contradiction here between "a department that has set itself aside from “the Business”" and "trying to protect itself by chanting verses from the ITIL"...

In fact, one of the key messages of ITIL is ALIGNMENT with the business, business needs, business processes.

So ITIL, done well, becomes the mechanism by which "IT departments can create a lot of value when they take responsibility for Integration Technology, bringing together the activities of people across the organisation and beyond its increasingly porous boundaries.".

I know that in many organisations ITIL becomes a synonym for "lots of obstructive bureaucracy" but it doesn't have to be that way, at all.

Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I've seen a well known media organisation hire an ex-Googler as CIO and staff up a whole US office of hip, young, MacBook Air toting uber-agile developers who were going to revolutionise the digital supply chain and do stuff that was "beyond the wisdom of [current] IT"... and 18 months later they had delivered jack-sh*t.

Because somewhere along the line the discipline of actually delivering "real stuff" to meet "real business needs" was lost... due to a lack of enough process (and, I suspect, some adult supervision).

almost 5 years ago

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GFlecknell

"When you look at IT departments, they mostly do three things:
They feed and water the servers, networks and other machinery that runs a scary proportion of any organisation’s activities and communications these days.
They support people to use the complex, unintuitive interfaces presented by above machinery.
They build and integrate new capabilities on top of that machinery."

This is poppycock. It departments spend most of their time assisting users who do not want to understand IT. There will always be a need for IT support because many workers think that as soon as something does not go to plan with a computer then they should pass it to someone else.

almost 5 years ago

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