by Tim Hebert

Prepare the cavalry: The makings of an IT revolution

Aug 31, 2017
InnovationIT Leadership

The battles can be messy, the causalities great, and the opposition fierce. But we also know that should we come out the other end, transformation is around the corner.

crystal globe displaying the united states of america on a keyboard
Credit: Thinkstock

“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” – Thomas Jefferson

I’ve long been a history buff. It all started when I was 4 years old, and my mother spent time explaining the American Revolution and what truly makes America great. Imagine the chagrin of my kindergarten teacher when I recited the preamble of the United States Constitution for our first show-and-tell. I became a disciple of revolution and revolutionary action.

One of the things I love most about history is learning of the trailblazing revolutionists who exhibited such fierce tenacity and grit to move our country forward – the movers and shakers who always believed there was a better way and a new journey on which to embark. Or, as Thomas Jefferson contended, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”

As IT leaders, we may find ourselves on our battlegrounds, expected to influence and compel the business to move towards revolution, while also keeping the lights on. But many times, we are losing the war, especially with run tasks dominating our time.

Consider your day-to-day for a moment, and ask yourself the following:

  • Are you actively dreaming of the future and exploring how the right technologies and processes can move your IT organization forward?
  • What percentage of your time is spent innovating versus completing chore tasks? Perhaps not all that surprising, some organizations spend as much as 90% or more of their time on run tasks.
  • Are you successfully influencing your organization? With 46.3% of CIOs now reporting to the CEO, according to a SIM report, IT needs to be the one bringing new opportunities to business line unit leaders.

I’ve long believed that IT professionals are on a never-ending journey for validation and respect, or as I like to call it, “The Road to IT Relevance.” As we all know, the battles can be messy, the causalities great, and the opposition fierce. But we also know that should we come out the other end, transformation is around the corner.

Growing IT complexity

To better understand the need for IT leaders to be revolutionary, let’s examine some of the mega trends impacting the IT landscape.

  • Technology in the hands of consumers: As we saw with the surge of BYOD in the mid-2000s, consumers don’t just want technology available at their fingertips – they demand it. As a result, employees have massive expectations of IT, both realistic and unrealistic. Whether they want an enterprise ERP system spun up overnight or a new IT rollout completed before end of day, end users expect technology to be seamlessly introduced into the organization – and quickly.
  • Digital first: The digitization of the enterprise is upon us – a revolution of its own! And with it we are seeing companies innovate on a dime. Just look at businesses like Starbucks, Airbnb and Uber, which are keeping the customer front and center and driving towards evolution daily. Today’s IT leaders face mounting pressure to harness technology and talent to advance the organization’s digital ambitions.
  • Hybrid and cloud: One of the chief reasons managing IT has become exceedingly complicated is that data, tools, software and hardware are now distributed anywhere in the world thanks to the shift to hybrid and cloud environments. At the same time, IT still needs to be able to manage the environment with a single pane of glass, or a single set of tools, but there is no great way for doing so.

In addition to the mega trends mentioned above, IT leaders are also grappling with a host of other challenges, like the fact that the cost of running IT is increasing and the IT talent deficit is alive and well. Accordingly, instead of IT spending time setting strategic vision and educating the business of the possibilities that exist for innovation, we can become glorified firefighters, extinguishing fires and troubleshooting all day long, while trying to get a little bit better. In other words, slowly evolving while the world around is rapidly changing – kind of like dinosaurs and the coming ice age.

Pushing through the slog

Though we know the forces described above evidence the need to be more revolutionary at IT leaders, the reality is we are constantly fighting against time, or lack thereof. Geoffrey Moore, author of the book “Dealing with Darwin: How Great Companies Innovate at Every Phase of Their Evolution,” puts this struggle in perspective, suggesting that our organizational activities can all fit into one of two categories: core or context. Let’s dig into each a bit further:

  • Core: Activities that help differentiate your business because they are rooted in innovation
  • Context: Everything else, namely the noise and clutter, that precludes you from focusing on transformation

Years ago, the organization may have been forgiving of us spending a great deal of time on context activities. After all, the success of IT was largely based on IT’s ability to keep the business humming along. But today, IT is expected to keep the lights on AND inspire the business to transform. Consequently, we need to focus just as much on core as we do on context.

How to spark a revolution

In order to begin successfully combating IT complexities and head towards a revolution, we need to fundamentally change the way we approach IT. Instead of troubleshooting we need to transform. Rather than being reactionary to business line unit leader requests, we need to be proactive, committed to bringing innovative ideas to the foreground.

So how can we start planting the seeds of revolution? Consider the following steps:

  1. Think ITIL: By adopting a service delivery framework like ITIL, you ensure that each function, role, response and priority is set so that when events and incidents happen, the business can respond swiftly and more efficiently. With a proven framework, you can scale intelligently, reduce labor costs and eradicate unforced errors.
  2. Out-task context activities: For many years, corporate America has been out-tasking non-critical context-base functions. Consider, how many companies are still handling all activities for processing payroll. To transform IT, we need to start examining the context-based activities that can be out-tasked to a third-party provider. Doing so will allow us to drive efficiency back into our business, while still retaining control of our core activities.
  3. Focus your view: As mentioned earlier, we need to find a way to bring disparate tools and technologies together, viewing IT through a single pane of glass. This allows us to avoid the siloed affect.
  4. Eliminate clutter: When context becomes louder than core, we take crucial steps away from revolutionizing our organizations. Unfortunately, IT deals with numerous alerts, distractions, interruptions, fires and just plain noise, which we must find a way to eradicate. Now imagine if we could innovate IT operations by leveraging the right solutions to automatically eliminate this noise – much like a SPAM filter removes unwanted and useless messages. We move one step closer to revolution.
  5. Radically automate: Automation has changed the face of manufacturing. Why then has IT been slow to bring automation to the forefront of our practice? Simply, we spend too much time fighting the fire of the day. Consider that some of the best-run IT organizations have one person managing about 200 servers. Whereas companies focused on digital transformation, like Google, Facebook and Amazon, have one person managing about 10,000 servers. What is the difference? Radical automation.
  6. Enhance stakeholder alignment: To avoid the “let’s go around IT” mentality, IT leaders have an imperative to focus on communicating in the language of the business leader. Business leaders, like the chief marketing officer, could care less about 99.9% uptime or which server in some remote closet caused their outage. They want to know, “Are my CRM and marketing automation solutions working correctly?” More important, they want to know if that marketing campaign was sent on time. Instead of focusing on the devices, elements, systems and technology, IT leaders need to focus on stakeholder alignment, business service and eventually business outcomes.
  7. One click away: Gone are the days in which an IT organization could have a single keeper of knowledge or manage a sea of SharePoint sites and Excel spreadsheets. To transform IT, we must build systems that allow critical information to be stored in a single system that is one click away, rather than buried in spreadsheets or confined to one team member.

It’s time for a revolution

The greatest revolutionists of all time had the uncanny ability to see the big picture and small picture at the same time. They saw around corners to pinpoint a world of possibility, while still understanding the incremental steps that would need to be taken to arrive there.

As IT leaders, we need to sharpen this skill set. We need to be both futuristic yet realistic, strategic yet tactical, and visionary yet grounded. When we expand our thinking, celebrate the strengths of these opposing viewpoints and peer over the horizon, we can successfully ignite a revolution.

What about you… is a revolution in your future? Are you eager to wrangle the cavalry? Let me know in the comments!