A new IT landscape empowers the CIO to mix and match

IT has always had an outsized influence on which technologies are adopted by organizations large and small. Now cloud giants are rolling up customers into big suites that are easy to manage just as the obstacles that prevented best-of-breed drop away.

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It's an issue that IT has been challenged on countless times over the years: Shouldn't a given application or IT solution be picked primarily on the basis of the best business fit? It's the perennial pushback to a department that has to actually make tech solutions do what they claimed they'd do over the long haul, while also keeping said systems operational and secure, fitting them into a rapidly expanding enterprise architecture, and supporting their users.

To the extent that the two primary stakeholders of a technology solution -- the business and the IT department -- have a conflict of interest, it's in the disjoint nature of their requirements. Simply put, the business side wants their needs met over most other concerns, while CIO wants the easiest, lowest risk, most rapid, and least costly overall path to meeting those same needs.

For a great many years, IT's requirements have often been supreme, when it could be reasonably claimed that failing to meet them meant that the business might never get what they need if IT couldn't/wouldn't deliver on it. Then, as IT systems became larger and more complex, particularly with the popularity of new organization-wide enterprise resource planning (ERP) suites, IT did attempt to customize them more to the business out of perceived necessity. The result was mostly a disaster in the industry, since in an on-premises world, most IT organizations had to redo much of the (very expensive and time-consuming) customization made with each new major ERP release.

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Long the Norm: One-Size-Fits-All IT

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Therefore, the CIO was increasingly able to point to industry data that showed up to 90% of organizations now prefer to adapt the business to major IT systems like ERP in most cases, instead of customize them to fit. Not so ironically, this trend also ended up being a major opportunity point for what was about to transform the industry: The entry of cloud-based IT systems that eschewed customization because of multi-tenancy and version management (and tried to make up for it, with a fair degree of success, by allowing a reasonable amount of configuration instead.)

But the same old tension lingered: Businesses would often discover a technology solution they really preferred, but the CIO could point to many IT-specific reasons why it couldn't be adopted. Or periodically the business could find important capabilities that they liked about two or more different systems, but there was no reasonable way to acquire both or mix the features either practically or cost-effectively. Or the business just wished they didn't have to use the default application for a given function from a one-size-fits-all suite or ITSM solution directory. 

To this latter point in particular, I've heard countless times from lines of business that their CIO would counter that the on-hand solution was already paid for, so why acquire another solution -- that IT would consequently have to rollout, oversee, and manage -- even if an alternative was substantially better for the business?

Now, iit appears, those days of compromise -- of generic IT pigeonholed into too many business situations, of making due with what's at hand or exporting data by hand to an unsanctioned app because of a couple of key features at which it's the best at -- are finally beginning to vanish like the stranded on-premises customizations of yesteryear.

A number of forces are at play -- even more so due to the global pandemic -- in bringing about this important shift (see IT Push/Pull visual below for details), which we'll explore shortly. However, standing perhaps above all others -- and residing at the end of a very long line of hard-won experiments and realizations about how to actually achieve it industry-wide -- we've now reached an era where applications and data both have become truly open and reusable building blocks in a way that was only dreamed about even just two or three years ago. 

Then IT Began to Open Up and Connect Together

Originally it was the rise of the open API and then the more recent widespread shift to microservices that theoretically enabled true mix and match IT. But we learned that these by themselves simply weren't enough to really enable a scalable, easy-to-adopt, and repeatable end-to-end mix and match strategy. So the rest of the pieces had to be discovered and filled in as a series of corporate IT and vendor experiments en masse over the years. It turned out the minimum viable solution was the identifying and creating the rest of the value chain for combining pieces of apps and data into usable new value to stakeholders. This new stack, from APIs to point-and-click integration into lightweight digital experiences was the missing part of realizing a new revolution in IT delivery.

To call the result a revolution isn't too strong a word either. As I've explored in detail in recently, integration used to be the most expensive and time-consuming activity for a given IT project. Yet it's also one of the most strategic and vital, to ensure one common view of enterprise data was being used to the extent possible across the organization, among a whole host of benefits. 

IT Is Now Highly Composable, At Last

Now integration of IT systems, if they have been kept reasonably updated and modern, has essentially become a point-and-click exercise. As has mix-and-match IT itself. Platforms like Zapier or Integromat that deliver off-the-shelf integrations for hundreds of popular IT applications as well as integration platforms-as-a-service (iPaas) like JitterbitOutsystems, or TIBCO Cloud Integration that make it easy for IT -- or even citizen developers -- to quickly remix apps and data into new solutions has dramatically changed the art-of-the-possible in IT.

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So, at least technically, creating new high value digital experiences out of existing IT is now not just possible, but can be made commonplace. The rest has become a vendor management, product skillset, and management/governance issue. The major industry achievements of ease-of-integration and ready IT mix-and-match must go up against the giants in the industry who have very entrenched relationships with IT departments today.

That's not to say that CIOs aren't avidly interested in avoiding vendor lock-in, accelerating customer delivery, bringing more choice to their stakeholders, satisfying needs more precisely and exactly than ever before, or becoming more relevant again in general as IT is increasingly competing directly with external SaaS offering, outside service providers, and enterprise app stores, to name just three capable IT sourcing alternatives to lines of business.

No, I find that most CIOs are very interested in progress in this direction. But the central challenge is how to overcome the remaining structural issues to realizing a more composable and distributed model of IT.

The Big Vendor Share of IT Still Grows

At issue is the sheer share of wallet and internal IT market share that's been seized by the top enterprise software vendors like Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, and other traditional IT providers. Newer players like Salesforce, Google, Amazon, and a cohort of new-generation enterprise cloud firms are also moving in. Realistically, unless a major effort is made, the CIO knows that most of the offerings from these companies are capable and largely work together already. However, this is a slippery slope that is risks creating a global technology monoculture with just a few alternatives for many major types of IT systems and platforms.

This is in sharp contrast to the sheer richness and vast variety in the 3rd party IT ecosystem that has exploded in recent years. There are literally countless alternatives to almost any imaginable IT function available in the cloud today, each with their own unique advantages or special sauce. We are at an all time high in terms of having IT choice, yet these are often squeezed out of the mix because the vendors are too small, there is no IT experience with the product (or desire to learn such niche skills), or the need to go through arduous procurement processes, time-consuming security reviews, and traditional heavyweight rollout processes.

Instead, it's simply far easier to fall back on the iT at hand, with the vendors already signed to a master agreement, than to create more IT and vendor fragmentation, duplicate solutions in many cases, and ever more systems to secure and manage.

Except, other than the aforementioned process issues like procurement or security reviews, most of the remaining obstacles to mixing-and-matching have now fallen by the wayside. Today's CIO can confidently develop a capability that can create more streamlined solutions out of the best available IT, mixing and matching pieces and parts, than ever before in IT history. And it will only get better.

While limitations and issues still exist, especially with legacy on-premises systems, to this observer the writing is at last on the wall: Monolithic IT is no longer needed or wanted in many cases. It's clear even many of the large IT vendors have started to see this as well. Microsoft has made major investments in strategic capabilities like Microsoft Graph and solutions like MS Power Apps and Power Automate that allow you to do much of everything described above. Other top vendors are heading in similar directions, such as SAP with their own SAP Graph and the SAP Cloud Platform Integration Suite, with varying levels of comparable maturity.

The Future of IT is Moving from a Push to a Pull Model

IT Now Shifting to a Pull Model

The push model of IT, where everything was produced and delivered centrally, has been eroding for a long while, but relatively slowly until recently. The alternative model, one based on a pull model, where motivated stakeholders anywhere can pull bits of services, apps, and data together quickly and dynamically to self-service, is not a full replacement of the old model. IT must still be there, but in a role of steward, orchestrator, safekeeper, and influencer of change in the most constructive direction.

Both models have their place in a new hybrid model for IT. I've recently witnessed a sea-change in the CIOs I talk with who see many pieces of this new, more distributed IT world emerging inevitably out of the sheer demand for new technology solutions. There is s strong desire among their stakeholders to tap into exciting waves of brilliant new technology solutions that urgently, need a rightful place in their businesses. The result is a need to more assertively combine, streamline, adapt, and shape the IT landscape to serve local needs in the business and to drive widespread, distributed digital transformation, all while still keeping everything safe, secure, and trusted. If we can remove the last remaining non-technical barriers, that is.

I've explored in the past how a new CIO mindset is evolving that will naturally align with these shifts. Now IT is at least evolving to deliver the capabilities we need to maintain and sustain not what we could call an IT department exactly, but a much more distributed, richer, and more dynamic IT ecosystem. The bottom like is that enterprise IT likely isn't going to end up the purview of a few major vendors, but of necessity a more enduring, sustainable, and diverse technology fabric that can be guided and shaped by every stakeholder as needed.

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