Blog Post

Technology is king, so why are so many IT departments playing backseat roles?

Today’s IT departments face an identity crisis. Technology is an integral part of every single business process, and has come to dominate the lives of consumers who are routinely shopping online, downloading information, and browsing the Internet.

Yet ironically, in an era when technology rules, IT departments are losing ground fast:  The forces of cloud computing, social media, and information management are evolving rapidly, and business managers are discovering and adopting new technology before IT departments even have a chance to master it. Gartner Research predicts that by 2015, 35 percent of most companies’ technology-related expenditures will be managed outside the IT department’s budget.

In order to thrive and have an impact in today’s businesses, IT departments must stay relevant. They must become service-oriented organizations. That means deploying user-centric and agile solutions that meet the business needs of the organization and individual departments. That means delivering IT as a Service (ITaaS), and becoming a team of service-oriented experts.

SaaS: An often too-quick fix

The increased availability of Software as a Service applications (SaaS) makes it easy for individual departments to “go rogue” within an organization. Employees sign up for inexpensive outside-the-firewall public-cloud SaaS apps because they are convenient, easy-to-use, and address immediate needs – and because they believe they can meet their business needs better and faster than their IT department.

But users inevitably run into problems and end up going to IT for help. They may need to integrate the public-cloud application with another internal service, and/or import or export data. Then IT staff find themselves in an awkward position. They have to quickly master the application, understand the problem, and solve it. Along the way, they will likely identify risks associated with the use of this product – including critical security issues. Had they been involved right from the start, they could have provided real strategic value instead of simply putting out fires.

The lure of the public cloud

Likewise, developers are under the gun to conceive, prototype, and test applications, and then to get them into production. They often turn to public cloud providers for initial prototyping, testing, and even final deployment. The cloud offers a easy, self-service platform that developers can control and works the same across the development, testing, staging and live deployment phases. This practice relegates the IT department to the sidelines, and can minimize its value to that of maintaining legacy systems and infrastructure.

Breaking the vicious cycle

IT departments that remain passive legacy-system babysitters will be caught in a vicious cycle. Today, it is the CIO’s responsibility to bring awareness in the organization about the hidden dangers of decentralizing IT. There are four major ways to elevate IT’s role within the business, transforming it from being an old-school roadblock to a visionary service-oriented enabler:

  • Be proactive to build internal relationships. The IT department is uniquely fundamental across all areas of an organization, and must capitalize on that. IT staff must show others how well it understands the business, helps users visualize what is possible, and how IT will enable them to achieve their goals.
  • Evangelize how central IT safely, responsibly and responsively serves the organization. If business departments are implementing a SaaS app to solve a problem or if developers are deploying code to a public cloud during prototyping and testing, the IT department should, for instance, demonstrate how the cloud can be unpredictable in accessibility and performance, and be rife with security issues. Make the case that IT always puts the business first, safely and securely.
  • Become SaaS experts. Even if a department is convinced that a public-cloud SaaS app can solve a specific need, it is critical for IT to be involved from the beginning. The requesting department can judge which apps can best solve their problem and provide the most value, but IT can consider the security, governance, and interoperability angles.
  • Provide a self-service platform for the company’s developers. A good enterprise-ready Platform as a Service (PaaS) will convert a static infrastructure into a dynamic powerhouse. An enterprise-ready PaaS will support any application written in any language and framework on any infrastructure that IT has access to. From development through production, the developers can control a self-service platform, which is safe and secure.

The new IT: Win-Win-Win

This new service-oriented central IT model can deliver new  benefits, including lower costs (by eliminating duplicate projects among different departments), more interoperability between differing SaaS applications, improved cohesion among departments, and reduced security risks.

Faster time to market for internal applications dramatically impacts the development side in an organization. An enterprise PaaS provides a common platform environment throughout the cycle and eliminates inconsistencies between development and final deployment. With PaaS, developers can now use the “right tool for the right job,” because any language and framework can be deployed in production.

Bart Copeland is CEO of ActiveState. You can read his blog posts here; follow him on Twitter @Bart_Copeland.

Have an idea for a post you’d like to contribute to GigaOm? Click here for our guidelines and contact info.

Photo courtesy aceshot1/

18 Responses to “Technology is king, so why are so many IT departments playing backseat roles?”

  1. Tom Christie

    Tom Christie Apr. 5, 2013
    As a consultant in Business Intelligence and data driven applications, I often find that internal Project Managers do not have the technical expertise to effectively manage their projects. They make ridiculous request and tend to over simplify gargantuan tasks. Another problem is involvement by management who try to write specifications in technical terminology hence just clouding the scope of the project because of inaccuracies or incorrect terminology in their requirements.

  2. raygun

    The problem isn’t so much IT’s irrelevence, but the marginalization of systems analysis.

    Long live the Systems Analyis Life-cycle!

    Quite frankly I see this analagous to HR being irrelevent and that any employee can hire anybody at any time and bring anybody into the organization for what ever reason (all of which is paid out of each and every employee’s personal expense account).

    There’s no need for any overarching policy, organization or mission whatsoever.

    I’ve sen this countless times: a person makes the request of something, and when posed questions, they physically jump up and down, thrusting fists akimbo and bellowing “I need it I need it I need it.”

    When asked additional questions pertaining to what, where, when and why they need whatever, they become flustered and storm out erxclaiming, “F U, I’m going around you!”

    I’ve seen whole systems being attempted to be incorporated without any sort of feasiblity assessment or requirements definition performed against the physical system. $100k systems bought in on a credit card and then expensed to the company by managers and directors of their own fiefdoms.

    Guess what happens when the inevitable incompatiblity occurs and the entire business information system grinds to a halt? That’s right IT has to immediately pick up the slack – nobody can do their jobs – and guess who’s fault it is?


  3. Even that I have a strong technical background, I really believe that the reason why IT plays a backseat role is because most IT people doesn’t think about business issues and they view everything from IT perspective only.

    IT people capable to understand business issues, drives the business, the others go to the backseat. An example: Bill Gates. Reason: They use the technology to improve business and not for technollogy sake.

  4. Warren Nash

    This has been happening since SAP really first hit the market in the mid-1990’s. IT department are old fashioned and do not service the organisation as they should. This is why SAP is served best via an SAP department that is away from the IT department.

    I guess there are many issues:-
    1. Turn the computer off and turn it back on
    2. We need six months to add that functionality
    3. How many IT people solve issues and do development by usng Google or copying someone else’s code?

    IT solutions in the future will be serviced via wizard and workflow functions and new business will also be added to the existing software base via these wizards, I think the modelling construct is helping in this area. Also consider the future use of software robots.

    IT people need to start asking themselves why 35% of CIO’s do not have an IT background.

  5. Kevin Crocker

    IT will continue to take a backseat because it is not a revenue generator on the surface. It is a cost in the eyes of the bean counters. Like any other hard working precious commodity in a company, it is underpaid, hardly appreciated and overstretched to the limits. The only time that the upper management recognizes the true worth and value of it’s support team is when crisis arises unfortunately. Will this ever change? I do not think so. Does this make me want to leave my profession, not one bit.

  6. Patrick Thompson

    Technology and IT exist to serve the customer, internal and external. IT can bring logic, sanity, clarity and security to an otherwise free-for-all. IT must learn to partner with business units and earn their place at the table. Since the days priests, rabbis and holy people carried the books of knowledge from one town to another, modern IT owns the record and the data to help organizations translate and compete. IT is not king, they are messengers. They aren’t irrelevant, but they can be.

  7. Follow the money! All companies need technology to compete, but is it the driving force behind the company? Tech is only king where the company’s fortunes and revenue streams are generated by said technology. Otherwise, it is a service offering with technology underpinnings. IT folks, are smart, knowledge based workers and do not always see it that way. Sadly, business folks do not always realize that behind EVERY technology – be it cloud, social, X as a services, etc., there are people. And when the *rap hits the fan on their mission critical system (were ever it resides), you want those smart, deeply skilled technical surgeons there to keep your business from flat-lining….

  8. As a previous reply pointed out, this is definately a topic that’s been discussed at length.

    I would argue that the discussion goes back much farther than most realize. My first job in IT was part of a “shadow” IT organization. Our job was to help the business deploy technology that was readily available on the open market but that IT was not willing to provide for us.

    Except that this was in 1989 and the technology was Macintosh computers.

  9. Where do IT decisions now belong?
    We are now into our second decade of the 21st century. This is the decade of social media, a BYOD in every pocket, of robust applications (very mature open source and proprietary solutions), of HTML5, IPv6 and the Internet of Everything. This is the decade when IT is in the plumbing of every organization, it’s the tick to their tock. Each organization has a unique need and use for advanced technologies, a requirement to power the business of their own IT DNA. But as we look around, many organizations are still functioning as if it’s Prince’s 1999.

    Technology has not only changed in the last 13 years, it’s morphed and evolved into a new ubiquity. A good analogy might be the utility known as electricity. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was common for large businesses to have their own power plants. They had large organizations dedicated to maintaining generators and stringing lines to meet the demands of the manufacturing process. Today such a notion would be considered silly. Electricity became ubiquitous. There is now an outlet in the wall that you seldom give a second thought about.
    I’m proposing that we are now in a similar place with IT here in the 21st century.

    An obvious example is your Marketing department. Marketing has significantly different IT needs than even twelve months ago. Marketing needs to manage the enterprise’s web / portable / social network presence. This is about messaging, branding and customer contact. It’s about positioning and market share, it’s about outreach and inbound allegiance. It’s about communication. Both internal and external. It’s about being agile and responsive. The fact that these requirements are sitting upon an IT infrastructure is secondary. To use another utility analogy, IT is the plumbing – Marketing is the elaborate fountain display.

    Or, what about Finance? Their IT needs have gotten as sophisticated and demanding as the Marketing arm. They have very unique requirements for government reporting, risk management, asset management, security, Human Resource Management as well as shareholder communications and financial management. Finance does not see the need to underwrite its own insurance, and seldom would they ever consider even owning a fleet of vehicles in this age. It’s the same as owning your own printing plant to print your annual report. Might be fun, but it does not make sense.

    We could spend time in each department – and I propose that here in the 21st century we’d discover the same in each. Departmental demands are unique and becoming more so. Managing them from a central authority is not only no longer required, but is actually detrimental to being responsive in a fact (and fast) paced market. I believe being centralized impairs the ability to succeed.

    So – here’s the point of discussion: instead of a central CIO – perhaps there should be a “Marketing Technology Subject Matter Expert”, and a “Finance Technology Subject Matter Expert”, “Operations Technology Subject Matter Expert” etc. who are responsible for assuring the departmental IT demands are being met. They also maintain a viewpoint into emerging systems that should be considered for incorporation into the departmental tool set, and are held accountable for the coordination of enterprise wide of technology decisions. Then there is an “Enterprise Security Expert” who is held accountable for maintaining security physical and virtual security – this function coordinates with all departmental SME’s.

    I believe that this group of SME’s becomes a “virtual” CIO. The “utility” requirements are then outsourced to the cloud, or to the local electric utility, or the water company or….

    “For first we use machines, then we wear machines, then we become machines.”

    Kim William Gordon

  10. Vinod Shintre

    For production system one still needs an IT team to keep it up & running. Experimentation, QA, Demo & other internal business IT needs are being sufficed by “x as a Service” model & seems right in many ways. IT can now really concentrate on IT.