Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: The Future of IT: A Strategic Guide

Three critical goals for IT… and a three-year plan to get there

Technology might be developing at a breakneck pace, but core business goals remain the same. Here's a strategy for making sure IT supports them.

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It's November, which means it's time for the IT pundits begin to prophesize about the future. Here is my prediction: The next three years in IT will be no different from the last three years.

There will be constant change.

Everyone is looking for more value for less investment. Faster speed to market. Bigger wins. Simpler solutions. Better security. Just like always.

There are a lot of major topics that are going to affect anyone who worries about making an IT department successful and keeping it that way:

  • Big data. You know, I hate that expression. Having a large quantity of data is nothing new…. it's the possibility of actionable intelligence that gets everyone excited. I'd rather call it great data or sweet data.
  • Security. The bad guys are getting smarter. We need to, too. And unfortunately, it takes investment.
  • Internet of Things. Things talk. (They also gossip and talk trash about you behind your back.)

But three major themes are on my mind more than any others:

  • The skeleton crew
  • Cloud wrangling
  • Mobile mindset

Here's where I see each of these three going over the next three years. I call it the 'three-for-three strategy'.

The skeleton crew

Every employee is becoming increasingly precious.

Obtaining approval for a new hire is, for many of us, incredibly difficult. Margins are still tight and IT spending is down. IT headcounts as a percent of company headcount is down this year, as well. Even though the recession is over, many companies are still in a recession mindset when it comes to spending. Also, maybe the recession isn't over. So we have five people doing the work that would have once been done by 10 people. Or 15.

Add to that the other problem that many IT departments have been facing: an increasing scarcity of good applicants. Some of that might or might not be the result of the US not producing enough of the so-called STEM graduates (scientists, technologists, engineers, mathematicians). Or maybe it's the result of top talent being reluctant to leave a steady job in the wake of the last few years of instability and downsizing.

Whatever the cause, the result is the same: Every hire is precious and there is no room to settle. If you get to have only five people, you need them all to be as close to rock stars as you can get.

Here's my three-year roadmap for working with a skeleton crew:

Year 1: The best offense is a good defense

Protect your star assets. It's far more expensive to replace them than to keep them. Identify your strongest people and put a formal plan in place to retain them:

  • Sit down with them and establish a formal career path and act on it.
  • Make sure they have a public face and are recognized within the company outside IT to strengthen their ties to the company and their self-worth.
  • Do whatever you can in terms of comp, bonus, or other incentives

Year 2: Don't do commodity work

Identify commodity work and stop doing it. Any activity that saps time from your team and that can be outsourced should be outsourced.

Why have a team that does nothing but manage desktops? Your desktops can be managed by vendors. Or look into VDI to simplify that burden. Put your servers and storage in the cloud and let someone else worry about hardware maintenance and rotating backup tapes.

Focus more on package solutions vs. custom development. If you have only a fraction of the developers you want, make sure they are working on only the most critical, business-differentiating projects. They should not be coding anything that can be purchased, ideally, as a SaaS solution. Make sure you have a really good process in place for defining business cases and prioritizing projects to ensure that only the most important, most ROI-yielding projects get initiated.

Year 3: Dig deeper for new hires

If you aren't willing to just settle on 'decent' hires, you are going to have to be ready to hire rock stars wherever you may find them. That means building an environment that supports a work-anywhere staff.

Your next hires will include people working in home offices across town, across the country, in Ireland, India, and the Philippines.

So you'd better have a solution for video conferencing and collaboration tools. You'd better have great mobile solutions. And it had better be highly secure. Do you not have multifactor authentication in place yet? Well, you'd better.

Cloud wrangling

While you were busy trying to deliver every solution you possibly could, a whole lot of people in your company got tired of waiting and went ahead and signed up a cloud-based service. You can blame it on your skeleton crew but you've now got a whole lot of critical technology tools in place that IT wasn't at all involved in.

Year 1: Search and ye shall find

Next year, take the time to identify all of the cloud-based services that have been established. Go from department to department and see what they've put into place. While you're at it:

  • Establish a simple process to include IT in the procurement of future SaaS selections.
  • Try to eliminate redundant offerings between departments.
  • Track all the renewal terms so you know when you have the opportunity to end the agreement.

Year 2: Hold 'em accountable

Show your value in year 2 by getting involved in the renewal process of each service. Work with the business to determine if the service is delivering the value that was expected. Use the renewal to evaluate the service level agreements (SLAs) in the contracts. Renegotiate them or require them to be added if they simply weren't there before.

Make these cloud services easier by ensuring that the renewal includes support for single sign-on. You could do this yourself or, following the tenets described earlier, you can use one of the many single sign-on services.

And push toward solutions with a mobile strategy.

Year 3: Tie 'em together

All these cloud services that everyone has signed up for are only as good as their ability to share data with each other. Maximize their benefit by establishing a cloud integration platform. There are many hot players in this market, such as MuleSoft and Boomi.

Don't stop there. Make sure you have a data warehouse to pull all this data into for analysis and reporting.

Mobile mindset

You may have noticed that mobile devices are getting a fair amount of press. I saw a guy camped out in front of the Apple store a few days before the iPhone 6 came out. When I asked him if he was going to get a 6 or a 6 Plus, he said, "Oh, I'm just here really early for the iPhone 7."

Year 1:  Facilitate data anywhere

Start next year by making your senior executives happy. Make sure everyone whose title starts with chief or vice has a KPI dashboard on their phone that is refreshed daily and supports drilldown.

Year 2: Trickle down

Now that the people who control the purse strings are addicted, you can expand the mobile offerings to the rest of the company. Take a good look at your business applications and think about how each one could be used via mobile. Hopefully, you took my advice when wrangling cloud services and pushed toward vendors with mobile offerings.

Soon, your users will be productive wherever/whenever. And that's important because, as I mentioned, your latest hires are located all over the globe.

Year 3:  Make it all about the apps

Apps are becoming a mindset in themselves. In just a few years we will have a new generation of business users who grew up with mobile apps as a way of life. We need to consider these users as we plan the business applications of tomorrow. Imagine a new generation of ERP systems that are inspired by the design of the Starbucks app or Uber rather than inspired by the design of the underlying database structure.

Bonus predictions

There you have it — my anticipated approach to the next three years, barring alien invasion or zombie apocalypse. I have another prediction. I am going to go out on a limb and predict that the next three years will see the creation of several new buzzwords. They may be only slight variations on concepts that have been around for years, but that's okay.

I see the use of big data starting to diminish (and I stand by sweet data as a better alternative). I also don't think the term Internet of Things has a long lifespan. Bimodal capability really doesn't capture the imagination, either.

As a true challenge to my prophetic abilities, here are the buzzwords I predict are going to be uttered in every conference and written about in every blog over the next few years:

  • 3D data printing
  • Moldable analytics
  • Reconnectigation

Coming up with these was an incredibly difficult process. Not because I had to think really hard about the future of IT, but because nearly every nonsense phrase I could come up with, when entered into Google, yielded at least one person or company championing it without the slightest sense of irony (automated reengineering, collaborative independence, predictive analytics…).

I do have one legitimate prediction: In the next few years, there will be a backlash against the 'always working' mentality. I already know many IT professionals who design vacations explicitly around the inability of others to make contact with them. Look for professionals to establish 'not-working time', where they can disconnect, guilt-free, and expect others to respect their downtime. I think we will start to see this 'benefit' become part of corporate policies and be factored into enterprise mobile strategies.

Ultimately, I imagine that during next three years we'll keep trying to wring out every last ounce of value from our IT investments. Because some things never change.

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