The IT paradox: A diminished role in technology, but greater clout in the business

As technology becomes easier to use, it becomes more complex internally. That means IT is less necessary in some ways and more essential in others.

There is a paradox in the technology that IT employs and deploys. As it becomes easier to use and simpler to manage, it is actually increasing in complexity. And there is a paradox within this paradox concerning how IT relates to the business. More on that in a bit.

The simple/complex paradox is nothing new. Think back to the days of DOS, with its command-line user interface. You couldn't just sit down and use a PC running DOS without a good deal of training first. What was that blinking cursor demanding of you? PCs were relatively difficult to use, but the underlying operating system was relatively straightforward. At about the same time, Apple was selling computers with a graphical user interface that made their use much more intuitive. But the Macintosh operating system was several degrees more complex than DOS.

Eventually, DOS gave way to Windows, and the race to make computing easier was on. But with every improvement that made things easier for users, the internal code became more complex.

Since then, the divergence between what users experience and what was required for them to experience it has grown ever larger. Today, it manifests itself in several disruptive technologies, including cloud computing. For the typical end user, cloud-based services such as Salesforce.com, Apple's iCloud and Google's Gmail are easy-to-use, intuitive, flexible and cost-effective. Internally, however, a number of innovations and technical advances are required to support the inherent multitenancy requirements of cloud-based applications over traditional on-premise applications. Basically, the cloud-based applications need more logic in order to support multiple users and multiple organizations and to serve up their personalized content while protecting and partitioning their data.

Beyond the software itself, the same thing is happening in the broader cloud infrastructure layers. Where once IT had two deployment options -- in-house data centers or IT outsourcing -- it now faces five different deployment models: traditional on-premise, public cloud, private clouds (both internal and hosted) and traditional IT outsourcing. What's more, these five models are ideally managed so as to optimize which applications run on which environment based on parameters such as reliability, availability and security as well as cost-effectiveness and flexibility.

Smartphones and tablets are another example. In terms of ease of use, today's devices are vastly superior to their predecessors of just a few years ago. Internally, of course, their processing power and built-in features and functions have grown increasingly more powerful and complex. For example, the Apple A5X processor inside the third-generation iPad features a dual-core CPU running at 1 GHz and consists of a system-on-a-chip that combines a low-power CPU, a graphics processing unit, and other hardware.

Meanwhile, software development has witnessed transformational change, from two-tiered client/server architectures to three-tiered Web architectures and today's development paradigm, where applications are expected to be collaborative, location-aware and on-demand and so must incorporate interfaces for social, mobile and cloud extensions.

What does all of this mean for the future of enterprise IT? Here are a few thoughts:

* The consumerization of IT will expand. As IT matures, it becomes increasingly commoditized, and once-specialty functions become available at lower price points to a wider audience, including consumers. As we all know, many of today's consumer smartphones and tablets are taking on significant roles within the enterprise in functions such as sales force and field force automation, displacing costly and proprietary solutions. The Unisys 2011 Consumerization of IT Study, conducted in conjunction with IDC, found that 40% of devices used by information workers to access business applications were personally owned, up from 30% the prior year.

* IT gets disintermediated. With powerful solutions freely available in the consumer marketplace, enterprise buyers within business units go outside of internal IT departments and procure technology themselves. This is an extension of the consumerization of IT and the resulting "bring your own device" policies, and it applies to entire organizational groups and business units within the enterprise.

* Complexity forces IT to change its role. IT increasingly sets policies and provides guidance around third-party technologies as opposed to building its own. IT becomes more of an adviser to the business and provides governance over externally procured technologies. Of course, not all consumer-purchased devices and applications work perfectly in an enterprise setting, so IT will continue to be an integrator and manager of technology, and its role in policy and governance will expand. The integration role is key, since consumer technologies used in an enterprise setting create difficult challenges; for example, there is often less vendor support, limited product road maps and a less predictable end-user experience.

* IT becomes a business function. As IT becomes more and more a part of the actual product or service delivered to customers, IT departments will increasingly become more of a business function. Here is the paradox for IT. As it gravitates away from technology assembly and moves more squarely into technology integration and higher-value functions to help manage and oversee all this hidden complexity, IT may well become more of a strategic adviser to the business. As an example, as organizations embrace today's disruptive IT trends such as cloud computing, social computing, mobility and big data, IT will play a key role in areas such as integrating public and private clouds, applying social computing within the enterprise for knowledge management and innovation, rethinking and often redesigning business processes in a new mobile context, and identifying patterns and business insights within masses of real-time data to help gain competitive advantage.

This new role for IT is already unfolding, fueled by the consumerization of IT and other disruptive IT trends. Still, the ultimate charter of IT remains, as it has for many decades, to use information technologies to benefit the business. Today, despite ongoing commoditization and complexity, IT has even more opportunity to make this a reality and drive transformational change for the business.

Nicholas D. Evans leads the Strategic Innovation Program for Unisys and was one of Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders for 2009. He can be reached at nicholas.evans@unisys.com.

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