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!