Scot Finnie: Where will IT be in 5 years?

With Computerworld celebrating its 45th birthday this year, I got to thinking: What will the state of IT be in five years?

One of the things I've noticed about IT predictions, especially as long as five years out, is that they tend to be two-dimensional, featuring forecasts in which the big trend of the day takes over and completely changes IT, often in earth-shattering ways. But the future is rarely so clear-cut. Trends often interact and move things in unexpected directions.

A key force shaping IT today has roots in the early aughts, when corporations realized that it is possible to buy too much IT. Information technology can't deliver endless productivity gains. As a result, IT budgets have been watched more closely, especially over the past five years. Five years from now, successful IT organizations won't just be cost centers. (They also won't be steeped in the "culture of no.") While IT budgets are apt to grow near term, I don't see any significant letup in the focus on limiting technology costs.

Another underlying trend is that technology is not just a tool that serves workers, like an IBM Selectric. Technology has become the lifeblood of business. It's in every department and branch of most companies. In many cases, it's the key factor in differentiating a business from its competitors. It's very difficult for a CIO and his or her team to make savvy, business-oriented recommendations about technology to every department in their organizations. One way or another, companies will need to find people who merge technical knowledge with an insider's understanding of business needs.

As I see it, there are two types of IT. Five years from now, the underlying influences and enabling trends that are coming to the fore -- like virtualization, cloud, Web-based apps, social, mobile, consumerization and outsourcing -- will separate IT into two chunks. The "central" part of IT will administer to the needs of the entire organization. Think of areas like security, the help desk, network and systems management, and at least some data center functions.

The other half of IT -- think of it as data and applications -- will be pushed out to line-of-business areas. Will embedded IT people be managing this technology? Will technically oriented business people emerge to manage it? Both things will happen. It's already beginning in forward-focused companies.

Virtualization and cloud computing will underpin many of these applications. But cloud isn't a major force destined to dominate all aspects of IT. It's a tool like any other; it will be harnessed for some applications but not others. Similarly, mobile isn't a major new wave of IT; it's a major new customer usage pattern making a short-term management demand of IT.

What will the organizational structure of IT look like in 2017? Even at the speed of technology, change is gradual and asynchronous. When you're talking about changes to business, different companies change in different ways.

At the heart of the question is a touchy subject: What happens to the CIO? My guess is that for some companies, the term CIO begins to disappear. At the same time, other companies may embrace their CIOs, whose most important direct reports may be deputy CIOs who are partnered with specific lines of business.

Agree or disagree? Let me know what you think the future will bring.

Next: Computerworld anniversary: 45 years of IT evolution

Scot Finnie is Computerworld's editor in chief. You can contact him at sfinnie@computerworld.com and follow him on Twitter @ScotFinnie).

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