It’s not exactly news to say that technology is a big deal for business these days. Even with a long history of companies using computing, there has recently been a tipping point in the world becoming digital and organizations following suit. Whether they are pursuing new customers, developing new products, or extending their brand, businesses are starting to directly drive their outcomes with new technology and new approaches. This has been true for some time for large enterprises, and now companies in the SMB space need to adopt a new mindset.
At the most basic level, companies need to consider two separate modes of IT. First is operational IT, which is the kind of IT that has been around since the mainframe days. This mode is more routine, revolving around the setup and maintenance of IT components. The second mode is strategic IT, which creatively considers the many different technology tools available and drives innovative solutions to business problems.
Gartner calls this situation bi-modal IT, and the concept has been met with some disapproval. Critics point out that these two modes have to happen within a single team, as most companies outside the largest firms don’t have the resources to staff separate groups or deal with the overhead of collaboration. This criticism is correct, but it doesn’t change the fact that IT now has to take on a strategic role that puts them in unfamiliar territory.
Rather than simply providing support to business units, IT is now interwoven with each department, much closer to the front lines where business decisions are being made. This demands new behavior and new knowledge, so even solo IT teams at smaller companies must transform to deliver value.
This integration of IT at the business level is leading some to proclaim that there is now no IT industry—as every company uses technology in strategic ways, the distinction of “tech firm” becomes meaningless and we need to evaluate and regulate using new criteria. While this tends to ignore companies that remain completely focused on creating or delivering technology, it does highlight a new way of thinking. Three areas in particular will need to be revisited as organizations plan their strategies for the digital future:
- New language. Both IT teams and business units are learning new terminology as they come together to solve problems. IT teams need to learn more about return on investment and time to market, while business units need to learn more about the full stack of system components and integration requirements.
The changes in language may need to go much deeper than that, though. The very term “IT” may be problematic. If “IT” still makes people think of strictly the operational side—especially in companies without a separate team for innovation—then alternative names may be needed for the technology function. “Enterprise Technology” or “Technology Operations” may help redefine IT as it evolves to include both operations and strategy.
- New skills. Recent trends such as cloud computing, big data, and the Internet of Things have companies scrambling to fill skill gaps. But it’s important not to get caught up in buzzwords. CompTIA’s IT Framework research found that technical roles will fall into the four main pillars of IT: Infrastructure, Development, Security, and Data. Businesses need to consider their strengths and weaknesses in these areas as they build their technical team.
The exact size and composition of that team is also a question companies will have to answer. The pendulum constantly swings between in-house resources and third party support. If more technology is being used, the overall number of tech pros will likely grow, but the exact mix will depend on the control or the vision a business requires from its internal staff. Fluctuations in job postings show that determining the right balance will be a long process.
- New budgets. This may be the toughest pill for many organizations to swallow. The traditional view of IT as a support function tends to include thinking of IT as a cost center. IT has often been driven to perform the same function at a lower cost, and budgets have remained static. Advances in automation and simplification only amplify expectations around cost savings.
However, businesses need to remember Jevon’s paradox: as a resource becomes more abundant, the demand for that resource rises. New tech can deliver the same capability at lower cost, but the reality is that companies are asking for far more capability. Add in the critical nature of technology to business operations, and investments in reliability and security will drive budgets even higher. Technology can help companies reach new heights, but not with the same old budget.
In CompTIA’s description of technology eras, one behavior was constant as companies shifted from the mainframe era to the PC/Internet era: the management of technology. As technical literacy grew among the general population, management and decision-making was still centralized within the IT team. In today’s environment defined by cloud and mobility, democratization of decision-making and elevation of technology initiatives represent huge shifts. Companies will need to move beyond their standard perception of IT as they advance into the digital age.