Dr. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, credited with helping to transform Big Blue IBM from legacy systems vendor into Internet systems giant, recently posted a thought-provoking piece on the new mantle IT managers and teams are assuming in the age of the cloud.
He says cloud is only the "third model" of computing to emerge in the 50-plus years IT has been in existence, following the first model, centralized computing, and the second model, client/server computing. Cloud computing is real, he says, and is needed now to integrate and manage the huge numbers of end-users and devices proliferating all over the globe. There's no getting away from cloud.
This may well prove to be information technology managers' and professionals' finest hour as well. Wladawsky-Berger sees an impending massive shift as companies work to cloud-enable their legacy IT infrastructures and applications, the same way many of these systems were Web-enabled in the 1990s.
However, unlike the 1990s, the process will not be as simple as slapping a Web front-end in front of 3270 green-screen legacy applications. Major organizational changes will be required, Wladawsky-Berger says -- especially within IT departments themselves. "Many companies have not exercised the needed discipline in their IT operations," he says. "They have allowed different departments in their organization to architect their own systems and applications. As a result, these disparate systems do not work well with each other, application take a long time from development to deployment, and systems management costs are quite high."
It will be up to IT to get out in front and lead this next shift in the computing age. "IT organizations must embrace a more standardized, process oriented, industrialized management approach," Wladawsky-Berger says. "Ad-hoc, custom IT infrastructures will not be able to achieve the kinds of volumes, costs and quality needed to successfully compete in the emerging cloud computing marketplace."
The shift to cloud may be elevating the role of IT-savvy managers within enterprises. Many line-of-business people are not qualified for — or really interested in — sifting through and evaluating all the cloud options out there, at least for technical merits. They just want to get things done, and are turning to IT executives to assist in the process. IT is no longer just a department full of people who code, build and maintain systems. IT is the business partner that plans and strategizes what types of technology solutions the business needs to move forward.
The solutions IT executives identify may be cloud services from somewhere else; or they may be from the company’s own on-premises solution (or private cloud). Cloud may be significantly increasing their visibility within organizations.
On many occasions, I have had the opportunity to speak with end-user companies executives about the somewhat elusive notion of innovation, and how information technology can make it more of a reality. One thing came through from the discussions: to be the enabler of innovation, IT needs to be able to turn things around faster than ever, and at the same time, let the business guide the process. Gone are the days where IT would spend six to nine months working on an application, then present it to business users to digest and figure out.
Bahija Noell, VP for IT business partnership management at Aflac, put it this way to me in an interview a couple of years back: "We have to figure how how is it that we can provide the most value to the business in a shorter timeframe, without compromising quality and not compromising expense."
A survey released by CA Technologies at the end of last year found that a majority of CIOs, 54%, agree that cloud computing has enabled them to spend more time on business strategy and innovation. The CA survey also found that CIOs who have adopted cloud computing seem to be more driven to advance in their companies than their non-cloud-adopting peers. Approximately 71% who have adopted cloud computing see their position as a viable path to pursue other management roles, compared to only 44% of non-cloud adopting CIOs. Also, 39% of cloud-adopting CIOs see their current jobs as a stepping stone to the CEO position, versus 24% of non-cloud- adopting CIOs.
With the rise of cloud as the core of many businesses -- and ability of IT managers to deliver capabilities -- we may even see tech executives assuming leadeship positions within companies as well. As the CA study’s authors point out, “a business leader who is fully in tune with emerging technologies and with the ability to navigate possible pitfalls will prove an invaluable asset for many firms. With nurturing and targeted learning, there are a lot of talented people in the CIO position who are well positioned to take the top job directly, or make the journey via COO to become CEO.”
Despite all the hand-wringing about lack of "business-IT alignment," there seems to be some measure of alignment taking place. But it's not because business executives are enamored by the gee-whiz effects of computers (though some may be). Rather, it reflects the importance of technology in helping businesses to run faster, smarter, and more agile. And it's hard work to maintain a foundation that will keep springing new innovation year to year, month to month, and even day to day. As Noell put it: "We have to learn as IT professionals to see how we can drive that cycle. We need to keep up with the business."
In a hyper-competitive and unforgiving global economy, innovation is needed, every day in every way. IT can be the innovator.