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How the cloud can make IT shops more innovative

As more maintenance moves to the cloud, IT workers change skills and focus

June 18, 2014 04:02 PM ET

Computerworld - Jobs at many IT departments have been primarily about maintenance -- fixing crashed email systems, dealing with ever-expanding security parameters and helping users who bring their own devices to the office.

Keep the servers running. Keep email working. Keep the bosses from yelling because their passwords don't work.

The cloud may be changing all that.

As enterprise IT shops offload some of their heavy lifting to the public cloud, they can let someone else worry about at least part of the regular maintenance routine.

That means IT workers will have more time to be innovative. They'll be able to build a great new app or service that will help their business better take on the competition or connect more closely with customers.

"Probably just a few decades ago, almost every project that came out of IT had a huge ROI to it," said Curtis Peterson, vice president of global operations at RingCentral, a software-as-a-service provider based in San Mateo, Calif. "You could write a few lines of code and save the business a lot of money.... Now they're focused on maintenance over innovation, and now the ROIs are not nearly as compelling as they once were."

According to Peterson, IT departments in large enterprises 20 years ago spent about 80% of their time working on projects that differentiated their companies from competitors. Today, that has flip-flopped, with IT spending only 20% of its time on innovation.

The cloud is changing that dynamic.

Jagdish Rebello, an analyst at IHS, agreed, saying he has seen IT departments move to free their employees to be more innovative.

"IT has started to become a lot more innovative," he told Computerworld. "IT has become a cost center. Servers, the network, infrastructure -- it was all about cost. It was a necessary investment for the company. They didn't think about it as a way they could generate profit. The cloud is allowing IT to become a profit center instead of just a cost center."

With cloud services managing processes like company email and data storage, enterprise IT departments have more time to, for example, help their companies be more interactive with customers and suppliers.

A drugstore chain, for example, created an app that reminds users to take their medications. If a user doesn't respond to the app's prompt and confirm that he took his pills, the app can alert a friend or relative.

"IT can start creating new services and add value," said Rebello. "It's really amazing what the cloud is allowing IT to do as it frees up services."

One issue is whether the IT workers who have been focused on maintaining email, servers and mobile applications have the right skills to write new software, work with the business side and think up new competitive technologies.

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