Survival guide: Do's and don'ts for next-gen IT

Business IT is evolving behind your back. Here's how to head off extinction and assert a larger role

Here's the hard truth: The employees you support -- whose data centers you keep humming and whose email accounts you provision -- they don't need you any more. If you can't provide a service they want right now, they'll call up Salesforce or Amazon Web Services and order it from the cloud. And they'll do it without even telling you.

Your enterprise customers no longer belong to just you, says Narinder Singh, co-founder of cloud-based professional services organization Appirio.

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"The first thing you need to realize is that your business customers can leave or go around you in any number of ways," says Singh. "If people have an iPhone, they're going to use that for work, whether you want them to or not. If IT doesn't provide cloud storage, they'll sign up for their own Dropbox account. They aren't going to wait six to eight weeks for you to provision something for them. You can no longer treat business users as a captive entity. Instead, you'll have to become a consultant to the business and prove to them the value of what IT can do."

IT departments that wish to stay relevant in a BYOD and cloud-based world will need to redefine themselves as service providers. They'll need to make the leap from being technicians responsible for maintaining systems to experts who offer a menu of services and offer intelligent recommendations about which ones will help drive the business forward.

Of course, the transition from tech house to service catalog is full of pitfalls. Here are the key do's and don'ts for evolving your IT organization.

Do: Take a long hard look in the mirrorDon't: Jump in before you're readyThe first question you need to ask: Is your IT organization mature enough to become a service organization? Only 30 to 40% of large IT groups are ready to make the shift, says Patrick Gray, president of Prevoyance Group, a business strategy consulting company. You can't expect to have a seat at the table when your servers are still crashing and business apps are going down.

"The first step is to take a hard look in the mirror and make sure your IT department is really as mature as you think it is," he says. "Is your CIO called in after the business decisions have already been made and management just needs the cables to be connected, or is IT a valued part of the decision-making process from the beginning? 'IT as a service provider' sounds nice, but it's a much more fundamental transition than many CIOs and IT departments expect, and it's far more than allowing some cloud services into the company."

Honest assessment of your IT tools is key, adds Tom Davis, CTO for IT solutions firm LANDesk Software. The more point tools you have and the more you're still wedded to a break-fix mentality, the less ready you are for taking the next step.

"Providing a high level of service and automating redundant processes is exponentially harder in an environment riddled with point products," he says. "This will be your biggest expense in the move to becoming a service provider."

The good news? Removing point tools with integrated systems can save your organization money, he adds. But if your organization isn't ready to make the leap, it will end up costing you, says Joseph Lee, IT operations and delivery manager for SWC Technology Partners, a provider of managed services and infrastructure solutions.

"Before you adopt a shared services model, you need to make sure your infrastructure and your IT processes are mature enough and can scale properly," he advises. "If your solutions are inadequate and you try to scale them, you'll end up with bad processes repeating over and over. What you've accomplished is basically moving the work from one unit to another with no gains."

Do: Automate your infrastructureDon't: Get stuck changing lightbulbsUnless it's a one-person operation, execs who make the big decisions (and the big bucks) aren't usually asked to also replace the lightbulbs and fix the toilet. IT departments need to stop being glorified service techs who keep the servers humming and email free from spam; instead, they must start assuming a larger role.

"IT is always going to have a mundane component: setting up email accounts, jockeying help desk tickets, and the like," says Gray. "In the service-based IT organization however, these activities should be 'outsourced' to an internal or external party that manages itself, getting these activities off of the CIO and IT's radar. You can't be a high-value service provider if these tasks are your main area of focus."

You don't necessarily have to move to the cloud to transform your IT department into a service provider, says Jeff Fisher, VP of strategy for RES Software, a provider of dynamic desktop solutions. But you will need to automate as many low-level services as possible.

"Don't assume that moving services to the cloud is going to automatically elevate your role," he says. "It's better to focus on automating the delivery of in-house services first to intimately understand their dependencies. This will help immensely when it comes to determining which services can be moved to the cloud. Automating challenging IT projects like application upgrades or operating system migrations can give users a better experience without requiring direct intervention from the IT team."

Randy Clark, chief marketing officer for IT process automation company UC4 Software, says most enterprises are already heavily reliant on integrated applications using shared infrastructure, making them too complex to manage manually.

"For example, doing inventory and pricing refreshes for hundreds of retail stores or assuring stock trades through online brokerages requires multiple applications to work together to provide relevant, accurate data," he says. "This requires applications and infrastructures to be in sync and managed to defined service levels. IT process automation can reduce manual effort by up to 90%, allowing valuable human resources to focus on more productive work to better drive the business."

Do: Solve business problemsDon't: Try to be an IT heroYou've been hearing this for years, and now it's become a matter of professional survival: It's time to stop acting like a geek and start thinking like a suit. That could mean a 180-degree shift in your approach to technology, notes Simon Johnson, director for service management at GlassHouse Technologies, a provider of infrastructure consulting services.

"Transforming IT into a service provider means shifting away from the traditional mantra of greater efficiency, higher utilization, and cost reduction and toward what the business is looking for, which is primarily innovation and agility," he says. "You need to sit down with the business side and understand what problems they are trying to solve."

LANDesk's Davis says tech staff who are accustomed to being praised when they step in and fix problems need to resist the urge to play hero, no matter how good it feels.

"It feels great to swoop in and save the day whenever things go wrong, but it doesn't help the business grow," he says. "It is a big cultural shift to stop being a glorified technician and start being a business enabler and service provider. By breaking away from that hero mentality, you can move IT forward into planning and working with the business-critical systems."

Techs also need to learn how to be proactive, not reactive, says Gray. If the marketing department has adopted a cloud service it really likes, then approach the VP of sales and suggest she might want to give it a try as well.

"The ultimate benchmark is when you get a call from the director of operations who says, 'We're thinking about implementing this strategy and we want your input on it,'" he says. "So instead of just trying to be better at delivering technology, you become the people the business goes to for ideas."

Do: Build a catalog of servicesDon't: Forget about people, policies, and processesMany companies moving to a cloud-based service model can get everything right from a technical point of view and still fail miserably because they forget about the human element, says Johnson.

"We've had a number of customers deploy private clouds from a technical perspective without considering the process and organizational change that goes along with it," he says. "The technical platforms were sound, but they failed anyway, because the IT organizations were not ready to provide consumerlike services, and the services they were offering were not the ones the business organizations were looking for."

When creating a catalog of services for business users, you need to write it in language they can understand, adds Jay Seaton, chief marketing officer for GlassHouse. You'll also need a way to accurately allocate the costs of the services procured, and to define who's authorized to procure which services and for how long.

"You don't want to be a situation where either no one can provision services or everyone is doing it and it gets out of control," he says. "And once something is provisioned, how do you decommission it? Does it expire after a certain amount of time, or does it go on forever?"

SWC's Lee says IT orgs should take care to avoid overwhelming users with too many options or offering tools no one actually wants.

"One big thing is to review your service catalog every year to make sure the core services you're offering are being used," he says. "Hopefully you've gathered enough metrics to know which services are being used and which ones are not. If not, is it still worth it to provide these services? At a certain point in time it stops making business sense."

Do: Become a data specialistDon't: Be a server huggerResistance to change is a hallmark of many old-school IT professionals -- but not to anyone who's looking for a long and fruitful career, notes Gerry McCartney, CIO for Purdue University, which transformed its IT offerings into a services catalog more than half a decade ago.

"There are IT people we call 'server huggers' who've defined their job by the piece of equipment they maintain," he says. "That's a very risky posture to have from a professional standpoint. There's not going to be a lot of demand for IT people who only know IT. You have to be in the gap between the business and technology. The value the local IT person brings depends on how good they are putting themselves between the technology offerings and the needs of the organization."

As menial IT tasks melt away, technical people who want to bring value to the organization need to morph into data analysts, says McCartney.

"Your value will depend on your ability to extract useful business knowledge from the data your institution already produces or owns," he says. "That is the Internet of this decade."

Two exceptions to this rule are information security and contract law, McCartney adds. With the number of external and internal threats growing exponentially, security pros are needed more than ever. And if IT is going to act as a broker between business users and services available via the cloud, they need to be well versed in what those service agreements entail.

Willingness to embrace change is the key, says Appirio's Singh.

"If you signed up for a career in technology, you signed up for an industry where everything is turned upside down every few years, so to attach yourself to some past paradigm is the ultimate irony," he says. "More than anyone in any other field, technologists should be aware that change is coming and be willing to embrace that change."

Do: Retool, retrain, and restaff as necessaryDon't: Expect it all to happen overnightYou can't close up on Friday evening as a traditional IT shop and expect to wake up Monday as a fully operational service organization, says Patrick Gray.

"This is not something a lot of companies have done well," adds Gray. "They've said, 'Great idea, we'll outsource all this other junk and become a service organization,' but they don't factor in the fact that they need different types of workers. It's not like they're going to have to fire everyone and hire all new staff, but it's imperative employers realize it's a transition for workers and helps them make that transition, through formal or informal training."

For example, rather than developing a deep knowledge of a particular technology or discipline, IT pros will need to become familiar with a wide range of disparate services.

"You'll need staff that knows from 1 to 5% of a broad basket of technologies, ranging from cloud-based CRM to VoIP," he says. "They'll need to know enough to apply the right tech to the right business problem, and then kick the implementation to another party."

Management will also need to change how it measures IT's success, says Singh, whose company continually surveys its customers to gauge whether Appirio is meeting their expectations.

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