The New IT

Most IT organizations probably feel that they've passed through fire, water and ice over the past couple of years. The steepest economic downturn in decades has transformed IT in ways that aren't yet fully evident. But one thing's for sure: IT's business as usual is not coming back. (And it could be that the recession just hastened the inevitable.)

The new IT was born of three hard realities:

1. The recession was painful for IT. As budgets were slashed, IT infrastructure was an albatross around the necks of some CIOs. IT leaders want highly flexible alternatives that let them expand or contract capacity as market conditions dictate. As Computerworld's Patrick Thibodeau put it in an e-mail to me recently, IT managers "don't want to be caught, ever again, as they were in 2008-2009 when they were forced to make deep cuts. They want to redesign their IT infrastructure with built-in variability." The tricky part is to do that without damaging or killing key initiatives.

2. Cloud is a real alternative (like it or not). One way to get that variability is by provisioning your IT operations, at least in part, with cloud or software-as-a-service systems. As it happens, SaaS-based enterprise applications and infrastructure are no longer novelties. They've become real alternatives for some IT organizations. To be sure, they still have their drawbacks. But with IT finding its way into virtually every facet of business, and with business product cycles shrinking, you can't afford to choose any option that lengthens IT implementations. There are times to build key systems and times to buy them, but when you need technology now, it's faster to lease it. Utilizing SaaS or cloud is also cheaper in the short run because there's no upfront capital expense.

3. IT is business. The term "business alignment" has been bandied about by pundits for more than a decade -- while most of us were getting real work done. Well, here's another byproduct of the economic downturn: Advanced IT shops no longer think of themselves merely as cost centers. Want to hang on to your budget? How about generating some revenue? Julia King's May 24 cover story, "Beyond Alignment," made that point well. There are cutting-edge organizations -- such as Zappos, Progressive and Southwest Airlines -- whose IT departments are ahead of that curve. Whether your company embraces that trend sooner or later, this is no longer just a theory.

So, what is the new IT? In the next issue of Computerworld, we will attempt to illuminate the future of IT. We'll explore what the profession will look like in 2020, and what companies and IT shops need to do to get there.

One thing that I know is that companies need to try new ways of buying and implementing technology. They need to teach IT people how the company makes money. Today, every employee is a business person, and IT employees have skills that may help them make mental leaps that lead to powerful ideas and new revenue streams. Traditionally, IT employees haven't been trained or encouraged to think that way. What I hear from CIOs and IT executives is that many, perhaps most, CEOs aren't supporting their IT leaders in taking the risks that will lead to IT profitability.

In the new IT, executives won't limit themselves to the way things were done in the past. The business of IT today is about taking steps forward without breaking the bank, trying new ways of doing things that save -- or make -- money, and choosing options that don't lock you into a big contract. It's difficult, because in many ways it's a reinvention of IT. But that's what makes it exciting.

Scot Finnie is Computerworld's editor in chief. You can contact him at sfinnie@computerworld.com.

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