Is IT becoming extinct?

Is IT becoming extinct?

Summary: Since the days of punch cards, IT has believed itself to be guardian of precious computing resources against attacks from non-technical barbarians known as "users." This arrogant attitude, born of once-practical necessity in the era of early data centers, reflects inability to adapt to present-day realities. Such attitudes, combined with recent technological and social changes, are pushing IT to share the fate of long-extinct dinosaurs.While ITs demise won't happen overnight, the trend is clear. Here's why.


Is IT becoming extinct?

Update 3/26/08: Also see 5 tips to prevent IT extinction.

Since the days of punch cards, IT has believed itself to be guardian of precious computing resources against attacks from non-technical barbarians known as "users." This arrogant attitude, born of once-practical necessity in the era of early data centers, reflects inability to adapt to present-day realities. Such attitudes, combined with recent technological and social changes, are pushing IT to share the fate of long-extinct dinosaurs.

While ITs demise won't happen overnight, the trend is clear. Here's why:

IT services have become a commodity. Nick Carr's article, IT Doesn't Matter, described infrastructure computing as a baseline of plain vanilla IT services. In this new world, IT is caretaker rather than strategic business partner or visionary. According to Nick:

[As the availability of standardized IT resources] increases and their cost decreases -- as they become ubiquitous -- they become commodity inputs. From a strategic standpoint, they become invisible; they no longer matter.

Social media empowers users at the expense of IT. Enterprise 2.0 companies marginalize IT by putting powerful tools directly into the hands of non-technical workers, bypassing IT in the process. Dennis Howlett says traction is already there:

The outwardly facing socialprise applications and services I am seeing are not just fundamentally different in approach, they are proving successful.

Software as a service (SaaS) providers are replacing in-house IT infrastructures. Low-cost, external software providers are building and maintaining network, and support, services previously belonging to IT. It's great for the enterprise, but reduces ITs power, influence, and budget. Phil Wainewright, an expert in these matters, wrote:

The entire framework of how businesses consume computing and thus automate their information and communication processes is moving to a services model that runs on the global Web infrastructure.

IT leadership is alienated from senior management. IT loses credibility by speaking in technical jargon and failing to deliver core projects on time and within budget. Any discussion of poor alignment between IT and business raises basic questions about ITs strategic contributions to the enterprise. JP Rangaswami, CIO of British Telecom, told me:

The idea that you could take a critical function within an enterprise and state that it is “not business” is insane….[E]verybody and everything should be about creating new business value on behalf of the customer. [W]e have conned ourselves into believing there are separations to justify organization charts where people build empires, when actually you [should] have a bunch of people taking accountability for different facets of the business.

[W]e have to get to the idea that we’re all in this together, because we are in business together, and we are in the business of delivering value to our customers.

Corporate leadership doesn't understand the implications of IT decisions on business strategy. While IT is partially responsible for its own downfall, senior management is also culpable. On this subject, I wrote:

[M]any senior business executives don’t fully understand how IT processes function, nor do they completely grasp the ramifications that technical decisions can have on non-technical business strategies.

Noted author and project failures guru, Ed Yourdon, told me:

It’s amazing today how many senior executives don’t even read their own email. It’s mind boggling, but these people are going to die off sooner or later.

As the older generation of marketing- and finance-oriented, computer-illiterate senior managers die off and retire, you’ll gradually see a new generation coming in that is fully comfortable with the day-to-day activity and the strategic possibilities of IT, and who will be able to work more closely with CIOs.

Volume purchasing arrangements contribute to IT stagnation. Traditional software companies implicitly conspire with purchasing departments to maintain the status quo. Centralized purchasing policies support volume license deals, but inhibit individual users from adopting innovative new products. Although established software companies love this system, dissatisfied users blame IT, further damaging its credibility. Microsoft's Lawrence Liu commented on a blog post critical of his employer:

Microsoft is the only company in the world that can help organizations effectively integrate the future, present, and past IT capabilities to solve their business problems. Re: all the newfangled social software in the market these days, it’s great to see customers experimenting with this or that, but ultimately, they’ll understand [things are complicated and Microsoft is the answer.]

Microsoft pushes IT, the purchasing department obliges, users become unhappy, and IT moves inexorably towards its own demise, in the form of long-term institutional suicide.

The IT-killing external ecosystem is well funded. Venture capitalists are actively investing in business models that reduce ITs role in the enterprise landscape. Here's one example from Bryan Stolle, a VC:

Another evolution of the SaaS model is simply offering a software-powered service that is delivered as an outsourced business process. The best example of this is ADP: rather than sell you software to do your payroll, we’ll just do it for you.

Market forces are conspiring against the status quo, to the benefit of users and the detriment of traditional IT.


My next post will offer advice for preventing IT extinction. Whether you're a senior executive or a technical IT person, be sure to catch our upcoming episode!

Update 3/24/08: Welcome Digg users! Thanks for coming.

Topic: CXO

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  • IT is branching into 2 distinct segments

    You have raised some good points. I think that IT is diverging into two separate streams - firstly mission critical systems, that must be highly reliaible and resilient. Secondly non-critical systems that are being democratised. I don't think any of us want to use medical or financial systems that are user generated, not tested and not highly secure and fault tolerant? But for other business systems I see socialprise as taking over.

    So we see the divergence. Where high levels of reliability, redundancy and resilience are required IT departments & engineers are critical. But for the rest roll on the revolution.
    • Excellent points

      Your points are supported by the recent debate on whether enterprise software is sexy. What's the implication for IT departments -- do you think they become smaller as the two streams diverge?
      • IT departments will get smaller & become irrelevant

        The important thing that web technology is now enabling is ordinary people can generate, change and control it without need for many specialists. This means that business units can control their own technological destiny.

        Also things like SaaS will continue to change the game. Thus economies of scale that old time IT departments delivered will become less relevant. They will become less relevant because to deliver economies of scale you remove freedom, choice and control from the business. Up until now the business people just had to live with it. Now they are beginning to have viable, cost effective & reliable alternatives.

        We should see some interesting battles between IT fighting a rearguard action against this phenomenon and the business units pushing ahead so they can achieve their business goals.

        Scott Adams is not really joking in Dilbert when he refers to the IT department representative as "Mordac preventer of information services".

        NB: Caveat on all of this is exclusion of mission critical systems from above.
        • IT isn't disappearing, it's just relocating...

          Who do you think is building the websites and implementing SaaS? IT is simply evolving...something most people would view as a good thing. If you're not evolving, you're dying. I wouldn't hold my breath thinking that IT is going to somehow disappear. As long as there are applications and a network, there will be a need for IT.
          • But will IT be more than fixing computers?

            Computers need to be fixed and networks monitored, but those are not strategic functions. They're critical infrastructure services, but not strategic.

            So, the question becomes, where does IT end up? As a cog in the machine or helping drive the car?
          • Same old arguments

            IT is about service. When a user gets a budget and comes up with a project to do X it's IT's job to help the user get to where they want to be. Those services can come from in house IT staffing or from hiring consultants to do it for you. It is becoming more and more like HR and Accounting which service the business as whole.

            Also the whole business of IT disappearing is cyclical in nature. I heard these same arguments when the PC first arrived on the desk. Some 20+ years later we have more IT today than we had back then. I always hear the death of IT arguments and all it turns out to be is more work for us in IT. For every little thing that empowers the user there are 10 more things behind the scenes that they never see that IT supports.
          • Just like paperwork will soon be extinct!

            Same old arguements is true! They promised us a paperless world and have more paperwork than ever.

            The real question is do you want to outsource your IT and pay more for less, or keep it in house where you have people that actually know what goes on around here? Outsourced IT cannot figure out why the SonicWall will not allow the Exchange server to talk on port 25. They just keep blaming each other and nothing gets resolved.

            I agree IT is evolving just like anti virus programs evolve, network monitoring evolves, hardware problems evolve, the guts in the computers evolve.

            End users need to evolve too, they need to be more tech savy. I have said that if the Internet required a drivers license yours should be revoked to some users.
          • But WHY???

            Yeah, but WHY is it, in my 30 years of sales, every time we want to do something different, or change the way information is reported, processed, or inputted, IT people knee-jerk respond "We can't do it that way" or "The computer won't let us do it that way", or when trying to explain how a process needs to be altered, respond with a drooling, stone-faced expression. The day when IT staff members can empathize with sales, manufacturing, marketing, etc and make them feel you are trying to contribute to their efforts rather than conflict with them, will be the day that corporation will be head and shoulders above the competition.

            The "computer won't let us do it that way"??? F*** that, change the G****** computer!! Jiminy Christmas, get with the program. Plug in, wake up and join the war! Where's the flexibility? Where's the evolutionary capability? Nowhere. Keep it up and you guys will be relegated to that status right above the mail room kids; changing monitors and swapping out hard drives.
          • Same Song, Second Verse

            So, IT is becoming extinct, eh? Hmm...who's going to keep those web services running if not IT people? Okay, I may not be working for the same company, but my company can't outsource the IT work unless it's to a company hiring IT people, right?

            Oh, and let me just say in response to: "As the older generation of marketing- and finance-oriented, computer-illiterate senior managers die off and retire...." Can we get off the "computer-illiterate senior" cop-out now? I am so sick of hearing it. Who do you think INVENTED those PCs? People RETIRING this year have had computers since they were 40. Do those of you in your 30s really think you couldn't become familiar with a computer in 25 years?? I can tell you from experience that there are as many of the "younger generation managers" I've worked with who are just as computer-illiterate as the senior managers. They might be able to play WoW, but that doesn't mean they know anything about SAP.

            "Knee-jerk reaction", Phil? Perhaps their reaction is based on what you're asking the system to do. I've had salespeople ask me to (for all intents and purposes) make the computer read their minds to fill out forms for them. And they couldn't understand why it couldn't be made to do that, other than that I was just being uncooperative. I've had them ask me to fix it so they could type in a company name and it would fill out the contact person, phone number, address...for any company, anywhere, new contact or not. Okay, sure, a company's locations are available--if I program the Yellow Pages for the entire world into our system. But how is the computer going to know WHICH office you're working with or WHO your contact there is, unless you tell it at least once?

            *&^% that, change the computer isn't a viable response in such situations. We can only make the computers do what the existing programs are capable of doing--and even then only the ones the company is willing to buy for you.
          • How much value will IT lose

            IT will lose a tremendous amount of value and become a low-end service, unless it finds a way to do more than fix computers.
          • Response to... But WHY???

            I once worked at a company that let me go because they didn't feel that my job was necessary. Later I started hearing from a friend that still worked for the company about the sales people complaining about servers going down, applications needing to be modified, services unavailable and they kept asking meeting after meeting who was maintaining it, and the answer was, ME!!. Of course these were marketing people raising these questions and when they tried to get me back it was a little to late because I was working somewhere else a week later. Phil you are the typical sales engineer I have to deal with on a daily basis wanting more to make you even lazier about doing your job. Your lack of knowledge about what we IT people have to do to make sure you make that next big sale is why your comments do not deserve and answer...
          • Critical Infrastructure Services ARE Strategic

            The key being that they are critical. Failure of a critical component of a system will bring the entire system down - which is of strategic importance.

            Mr Krigsman is making a serious mistake by not considering IT to be a strategic function. Failure to do so is like trying to deploy the U.S. military to Iraq without logistic support. Beleive me, logistics is of strategic importance! So too is communications to any organization larger than a partnership. And IT considerations are embedded within any modern communications system.
        • Yes, but software and application development will increase

          and also remember, the more companies that host these services, more jobs will be created in other IT areas.

          someone still has to manage, update, create, database management...

          one person just cant manage more than one of two projects effectively.
        • And how do you think those tools are developed and managed

          Unfortunately both the article and your response are endemic to the problem. IT can not be on the demise. The kinds of abilities you are refering to go back to the 70's. The ability for users to extract their own data, develop collaborative documents and such have been concepts for decades. The utilities that relate to these needs have undergone growth and maturation, but they still don't eliminate the need to gather data. The tools to service these needs, whether it's operating systems, database packages, or reporting tools have to be developed, patched and made available to those clients. That all takes IT, whether inhouse or oursourced.
          • yes it needs IT skills but will they live in the corporate IT dept?

            Sure technology needs technologists to build, install & maintain software & infrastructure. Just like we'll always need plumbers & electricians. But how many places keep on staff plumbers & electricians. They are simply called in to do the installation or maintenance & then go away again. They are not strategic resources except in a few circumstances. That is where corporate IT is heading. More in the direction of contract management that actual technology work except for key mission critical areas.
          • yes it needs IT skills but will they live in the corporate IT dept?

            Yeah and when your accounting database server's disk array looses a hard drive for the motherboard burns up, you can call IT R Us to come out in a timely manner and fix it just like your neighborhood plumber or electrician.
          • Have to answer this

            Yes, the system just switches over, calls home, the users don't see any disruption, the service person comes, changes the parts, reviews the system, turns it on and goes home. Technology is not any more the problem, hasn't been in (many) years in big systems and gets, with good planning, there in small systems today. Sorry, I supported systems in garage (and huge installations) which had one, two nodes dead weeks and users never did see anything - in 80's! IT has to grow up.
    • Mission critical...

      What exactly does that mean? I think most people would consider accounting systems to be mission critical. Most people would also consider MRP to be mission critical. That leaves what, MS Office? Over the course of my career, I've been in the IT shop of a number of manufacturing and service companies. That pretty much is either provide goods or services. What I don't see in companies with well-run IT departments are non-mission critical applications. Supporting applications requires resources, and what purpose could possibly be served by throwing resources at something not critical to the business? Customers are critical, hence CRM is a mission critical system. Resources are critical, hence ERP/MRP is a mission critical system. Accounting is critical (unless you really want to spend some time in a 9x11 cell), so that becomes another mission critical system. I'm hard-pressed to think of anything currently used in business systems that isn't mission critical. Maybe chat applications or P2P...
      • RE: Mission Critical

        You are so right it hurts. And I wold say that even "Office" can be "mission critical". I have seen a sloppy formulated user query causing multi-million damages. As you say, pretty much anything which handles corporate (business) information is mission critical - be it a computer system controlling a steel or paper mill (much more complicated than it seems), a query which calculates an insurance rate, a "standard" command which backs up a government database to external site, etc - I have seen where they were not thought to be critical with disastrous results. It's not only the money transactions which usually are referred as mission critical. Yes, some services (resources) can be bought from trusted, external sources (still IT) but for many (all?) corporations there will always be a need for internal control and understanding - a perfect job for IT if IT is willing to learn how (and why) the whole business runs, not just the technology.
      • Excellent Point...

        "Mission Critical"; or "Strategic"... two overchewed buzzwords completely without meaning, but make the user sound like he or she is really with it. Christ, I need a "strategic mission-critical" trip to the restroom...

        Is it not safe to assume that if the corporation, oh, uh, sorry, "the Enterprise" is doing it, it's mission critical? How about we use the word "Necessary" or "Important"? Nah... the egg is scrambled.