Archive

Archive for October, 2013

Why online means the end of IT as we know it

October 22, 2013 Leave a comment

If you work for any fast growing company these days it’s highly likely that enabling customers to access your products and services through online is a key plank in your company’s strategy and success.

Which, in an age of mass technology consumerism, probably also means that your company has a technology-enabled workforce to support your customers. And your Information Technology department has a dual focus of supporting the enterprise as well as an external focus in creating great digital customer experiences.

And what I’ve firmly come to believe is that this situation of having the most technologically-skilled part of your workforce getting it both ways is bad for your IT department and bad for your business.

If you look back this wasn’t the nature of IT departments when IT departments originated back in the  60s and 70s. Your original IT department was born out of the teams of skilled technicians who made the telephone network in your organisation work; kept the fax machines humming and were the team responsible for grappling with the implication of the 4004 microprocessor post 1971.

But because most companies weren’t technology-focused, IT weren’t part of the “business” as we’d recognise “the business” now. They were the electrical engineers who kept the lights on and spent their days ensuring the workforce could communicate and share information as efficiently as possible. They would never, or rarely, deal with the needs of external customers.

With the dawning of the internet and the growth of digital businesses in the 80s and 90s it suddenly occurred to businesses that these backroom guys were also the ones who were also able to code web pages; build servers and were suddenly essential to digitally enablement. IT’s role was now about building internet experiences and more for your external customers and also keeping the phones and fax machines running.

So the technology guys suddenly became absolutely key to business strategies and the customer experience. For technology companies founded in the 1970s like Apple, Microsoft the IT department was the business. To work for one of these companies you obviously needed to understand technology – but equally obviously your customer needs as well. These technology companies, so familiar now, changed the face of business and IT forever.

Amazon is a company founded in the mid 1980s and whose success is purely due to embracing the new paradigm from the get go. This was an IT department selling books to the world who then ended up selling IT to the world. Their CEO Jeff Bezos came from Wall Street but was, and is, intensely customer focused.

He once said: “I’ve always been at the intersection of computers and whatever they can revolutionize.
True to his words Bezos created a company that didn’t separate the IT department from the business, its IT department was its business.

And Amazon’s success should be a template for all companies worth their salt these days – and for most digital start-ups this is the case. The techies aren’t in the basement cooking up the medicine – they’re in customer-facing delivery teams working alongside the product and marketing teams.

The focus of an IT department should be not just on satisfying internal customers. They need to be part of the business (if not the business) that’s working to satisfy the customers who buy your products and services. Drag them out of the basement and get them in front of real customers.

In the companies I’ve worked for in the last 10 years (Orange; Telecom NZ and Kiwibank) I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum as the pendulum has swung between IT teams being integrated or not integrated into business units. In that time the most success I have seen is when IT hasn’t been IT, but been driving the business from the front. And that’s why many companies, including my own, are embracing Agile software development and delivery.

That’s great for external customers – and internal staff too:

Google CIO Ben Fried: “I see a lot of CIOs spending a lot of time — which is very important to do — on major business initiatives. But I often see an inadequate amount of time spent where the day-to-day, most frequent touchpoints are, which is with all the other ways the people in the company are their users. One of the big changes that has come with the mass consumerization of technology is that IT needs to flip that around a little and spend more time focusing on the overall employee experience.” There’s more from him here.

With online being a key strategy for all large businesses I believe the pendulum is now stuck and the era of large IT departments is over. IT is our business.