Despite big changes in technology over the past couple of decades, IT departments and the duties of their staffers have stayed pretty consistent. The classic IT operation involves help desk agents, desktop support staff, systems and network administrators, DBAs and developers, and managers at various levels reporting to a CIO or technology director.
It's a system that's worked pretty well, surviving the arrival of the Internet and related shifts in both technology and culture, with very little change to the actual duties of staffers and the running of a department.
A combination of forces -- the move to mobility, the arrival of a new generation of employees and the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend -- is changing the world of IT with a speed that might have seemed impossible a few years ago. The same is true of technology and how users interact with their smartphones and tablets, computers and even personal cloud services.
At its most basic level, the integration of technology into users' everyday lives -- both at home and at work -- is forcing IT pros to reinvent themselves, what they do and how they do it. Here's a look at how these forces will be reshaping IT for years to come.
Enter the millennial generation
One major factor in the transformation of IT over the next few years will be the addition of the so-called millennial generation (also known as Generation Y, or, more recently, "Gen C") to the workforce. This is the first generation that grew up with broadband Internet access, mobile phones, and social networks, all of which significantly shaped the lives and expectations of people in that generation.
A recent study commissioned by Bomgar and GigaOm Pro discovered some key trends about millennials and how they view technology and workplace IT departments. The study found that younger workers:
- Have very high expectations when it comes to getting a response regarding support calls.
- Prefer interactions with IT beyond just calling the help desk, including email, chat and texts.
- Will typically research problems on their own (either before calling IT or while waiting for a response).
- Tend to work outside of typical business hours and off premises.
- Will develop their own solutions and processes with the tools at their disposal, including consumer-oriented cloud services and personal devices.
- Value working collaboratively with colleagues within their organization and beyond it.
- Are often willing to share knowledge about solutions provided to them by IT and solutions and processes they develop on their own.
For the most part, this means that millennials are assets to an organization. After all, what employer wouldn't want motivated self-starters that work well with others and can leverage their personal experience as well as that of their professional and social networks?
However, their tech expectations and preferences are likely to worry IT professionals. Millennials are part of a group of people that are technically proficient and often think outside the box. They're ready to leverage any technology at their disposal, whether it is provided (or sanctioned) by IT or not. And they're likely to share their thoughts and self-made solutions with others without involving IT in the discussion.
This means that while millennials may not be the cause of the "consumerization of IT" trend, they are certainly a factor in the process. You can expect them to become a bigger factor as their peers enter the workforce and move up through the corporate ranks. In fact, the changes surrounding this trend will be high on the agenda at the upcoming CITE conference March 4-6.
Trends leading the change
It's easy to identify the major factors of consumerization that are transforming IT, but understanding that transformation means looking beyond those factors to the overall trends that have been unleashed and how they affect traditional IT jobs. The crucial trends include:
- Users are taking ownership of their processes and technology.
- Workers, more technically literate than ever before, need less hand-holding.
- Solutions and devices beyond IT engender self-support.
- Users that develop solutions or are confident with technology can advise and educate others.
- The work/life balance is shifting and blurring.
- The single platform paradigm for tools, data access and devices is giving way to platform-agnostic solutions that can be accessed in multiple ways on different devices and from different locations.
- A more tech-competent workforce is redefining how staffers view workplace technology and IT.
Of course there are other trends gathering like storms on the IT horizon; these include cloud computing, virtualization of the user desktop and applications, and a growing emphasis on analytics and collecting/mining big data.
IT's relationship with workers means new skills
In the past, jobs in IT were centered around technical skills and proficiencies -- understanding how to build and manage a network infrastructure, managing Active Directory and Exchange, repairing end-user device and software failures like broken printers or corrupted configuration files. Those skills were easy to identify, fit into neat boxes and could be illustrated by past work experience and industry certifications.
Technical skills will always be a part of the IT makeup, but as users become more empowered and knowledgeable in what you could call the IT-ization of the consumer, other skills -- most notably, soft skills like personal interaction -- will become more important.
Indeed, some of the skills and tasks traditionally provided by IT are beginning to shift to a partnership between IT and other staff. It's a trend that will continue and can offer a dynamic relationship that benefits everyone involved.
Perhaps the clearest example is that BYOD programs change the support relationship: IT still supports access to internal resources and tools, but actual troubleshooting or replacing a damaged smartphone is more often the responsibility of the phone's owner.
Another example is that if users are provided an internal platform for sharing their thoughts and processes, such as a wiki-oriented knowledge base or social network, they can develop support and training materials on their own (ideally guided by an IT staff member or someone technically proficient).
As users' relationship with technology changes, it's important to ensure that their relationship with IT does, too. If IT works with users and becomes more open and integrated into various facets of a business, it can capitalize on the transformation happening. That means understanding user needs better, empowering users to contribute more and reducing some of the demands on IT.
If IT chooses to dig in for a fight against these coming changes, users will likely still develop their own solutions using their devices and preferred consumer services and share them with others. Working around IT will become the status quo and that's not good for providing value, reducing workload or keeping an environment secure.
This new collaborative and integrated IT model, along with the focus on mobile, BYOD, and big data, demands some specific needs that haven't always been the core skills of IT. As a whole, IT pros will need to:
- Maintain positive experiences and interactions with all users.
- Make an effort to understand the users' needs.
- Educate users about critical needs, particularly security.
- Be willing to listen to, and truly consider, user suggestions.
- Provide advice on consumer solutions (mobile devices, apps and cloud services, for instance) and their potential in the workplace.
- Develop solutions that are platform-independent or equivalent solutions for the major platforms in use.
- Expand beyond a help desk phone as the primary communication method.
- Work to help users share their knowledge and resources.
- Include appropriate non-IT staff in the project development and implementation processes.
- Be able to "connect the dots" between the technology and its use within an organization.
What it means for specific IT jobs
So what do all these changes and a more user/business-oriented approach mean for traditional IT positions?
Help desk/support -- Help desk and desktop support will need to leverage additional forms of contact with users (chat, text, instant messaging); become more mobile (commercial help desk suites are now beginning to offer fully functional mobile solutions); provide users with background on their issues along with how to resolve or prevent them on their own; develop self-support solutions such as an enterprise support forum where users can help themselves and each other; develop processes that direct users to seek manufacturer or carrier response to problems with personal equipment; and direct users in choosing company-appropriate BYOD hardware and software.
Network and infrastructure management -- With cloud solutions and infrastructure-as-a-service options, the role of the traditional network administrator will transform dramatically, as will the traditional data center. There will always be a need for managing and building out physical network infrastructure, but it will need to include new service-oriented solutions.
Systems and device administration -- Even with a BYOD model, central management of computers, shared resources and devices is still needed, as are centralized directory services and user accounts. The difference is that beyond basic provisioning, the full-scale roll out and management of workstations and devices will fall away as the goal becomes more basic: securing company data on each device and allowing it to access resources. As with help desk operations, a shift to working with users to develop a collection of resources for best use as well as internal and public apps becomes an additional focus. There's also the potential for implementing and managing virtual desktop and cloud services.
Developers -- The big shift for developers will be the need to support a wide range of mobile devices, both in and out of the office. This may be as simple as providing a mobile version of Web-based tools, or it may require a complete rewrite of current desktop options as native mobile apps. (That kind of complete rewrite will likely require serious rethinking of the software to best use the touch interfaces of today's smartphones and tablets.) A big challenge then becomes supporting a variety of device types and sizes as well as multiple platforms and versions of mobile OSes, particularly Android. Developers will also need to work with other staffers on Web, cloud or VDI solutions.
Trainers -- In many environments, IT training is minimal and consists of documentation for end users coupled with institutional knowledge. In today's world, training needs to shift from rote instruction to providing background information and identifying why core needs, such as security policies, are important.
In a mobile/cloud/BYOD environment, training is even more important because users' education about the best tools, corporate security needs, and selection/maintenance of their own devices are key factors for creating an effective shared-responsibility model. Training should take advantage of every communication option available: guides, email, wikis, internal support forums, instructor-led classroom or telepresence initiatives, and one-on-one help. The broader the options and the more responsive they are to the needs of all workers (young, older, technophobic and cutting-edge power users), the better.
Trainers should be available as needed rather than popping up onsite for a single class and then disappearing. Critically, training methods and materials will have to be continually evaluated and updated.
Security specialists -- The role of security specialists will continue to focus on areas like perimeter defense, identifying and dealing with compromised equipment, and malware detection/removal. It will also expand to securing vendor-based cloud solutions and employee-owned mobile devices and their data. Security solutions will need to become more flexible and account for user needs in developing an effective strategy. Again, user education is key.
Project management -- In some ways, project managers have always held rather malleable roles within IT. By its very nature, project management is more about keeping things on track and on time, allocating resources and coordinating different individuals and teams than about specific technologies. Given a fluid existence to begin with, project management duties will shift with a relative ease to the new needs in IT: dealing with mobile options and deployment, interacting with end users to develop planning guidelines for new initiatives around mobile and cloud technologies, and assessing ongoing efforts.
That said, the role of project management is expanding, and related skills and experience are quickly becoming core requirements sought by hiring managers. As mobility management within an organization and mobile development for both internal tools and client/customer needs grow, there will be an increasing need for professionals with solid project management skills.
CIO/IT management -- Mobile and BYOD trends don't directly alter the duties of technology directors and CIOs. Even cloud solutions won't completely shift what a CIO does. However, those factors, along with a growing technological competence by executives within an organization and the general state of the economy, mean that CIOs and IT departments need to build bridges with management and end users. Ideally, that means IT partners with other divisions to get the most out of technology and enable greater productivity -- a hallmark of the BYOD mentality -- as well as take part in strategic planning.
New IT positions
In addition to the changes in traditional staffing and job roles, the shifts in IT are already giving birth to new sets of responsibilities and job descriptions. Sometimes these are wholly new jobs, but they can also be expanded roles for existing positions. Some of the next-generation IT positions include:
IT generalists and liaisons -- Individuals who have a keen grasp of technology and a solid understanding of their industry will be highly sought after. They can serve as a friendly IT face to users and other departments, and one core duty is ensuring smooth IT experiences. Additionally, they serve to discover untapped potential, unmet needs, and problems (both business and technical) that IT can address. As ambassadors of IT, they can also serve as in-the-field tutors or mentors.
Enterprise/Information architects -- As IT morphs, there will be a greater emphasis on outside providers, a trend most notable when it comes to could and mobility management issues. The result: multiple teams -- internal and external -- that must be managed and coordinated and the need for someone who can meld these disparate solutions into a single vision of technology. Architects who can connect the pieces and projects and deliver services smartly will become a staple of IT teams.
User experience designers -- User experience design is a facet of Web and application development and it will become important to craft a consistent experience for employees as well as customers across a number of areas including the desktop, collaborative efforts, cloud services, mobile apps and Web services. Doing so effectively requires one or more people that are involved in multiple areas and projects. Some additional work may also involve developing training and other direct-to-user resources.
Mobility managers -- The phrase mobile device management is already giving way to the broader "mobility management" as it becomes clear that handling mobile solutions in business means going beyond basic device security and initial setup. Managing mobility involves devising mobile-oriented solutions, educating users, dealing with expense and risk management, providing a collection of approved or recommended apps, ensuring secure device access, developing and implementing appropriate mobile use policies, and cataloging and managing devices. That's a tall order, but it is crucial to a successful mobile and BYOD initiative. Add to that the speed at which the mobile landscape evolves and the need for IT to keep pace with the industry, and one thing is crystal clear: There's a need in any organization for a dedicated mobility manager or mobility team.
Small and agile adapts fastest
Traditionally, the IT departments of large enterprises have been better suited to tackle major shifts in technology because their greater resources allow them to test, purchase and deploy new solutions. In the past, smaller organizations with smaller budgets and fewer staff were slower to implement changes.
The shoe is now on the other foot. Small IT departments have a more cooperative culture and, more importantly, have less distinct separations between staffers -- leading to more shared responsibility and on-the-job cross-training. IT pros of all stripes in smaller organizations also tend to have more direct interactions with employees. That means greater comfort and familiarity on both sides as well as greater understanding of what users need and why.
Clearly, there are challenges ahead for IT departments and professionals. In some ways the most difficult challenge isn't technical at all; it's accepting that the way IT has operated for more than a generation is ending. There are immense opportunities for organizations and individuals that can adapt to this new landscape. There are chances for IT professionals to reinvent themselves as well as the workplace itself.
But there is no time to lose; these changes are barreling down the track whether IT managers and staffers want them to or not.
Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at RyanFaas.com and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).