IT's identity crisis: How to remain essential as the business evolves

The perception of IT's value and its status within an organization are in constant flux. Here's how to stay relevant.

Computerworld - Is IT Having an Identity Crisis? - Illustration by Jon Krause [ SINGLE USE ]
Jon Krause

In 2007, Michael Spears became CIO of the National Council on Compensation Insurance. It wasn't the usual promotion. Spears had spent two years as the NCCI's chief data officer, and he kept that role when be became CIO. In his dual capacity, he oversees both the IT department and the data resources division, though they operate as separate entities. Over the years, he says, the CIO and CDO roles have sometimes been held by different people and sometimes by the same person.

Spears has taken some ribbing for his CIO role from his colleagues in the data analytics world. "I was just at a data conference where people were making fun of me for being in both roles. They said, 'You can't get lumped in with IT — it's just bits and bytes. You won't be respected for the knowledge you have about data.' But it doesn't have to be that way. It depends where the value is coming from, the skill sets of the leaders, and what's important to the company at that time."

In fact, many of the technologists working in the NCCI's data resources division aspire to a move to IT. "That would deepen some of their skills and open wider opportunities at NCCI," he explains. "IT developers work closely with our business units. For example, the actuarial group does some of its own things. IT people may be embedded in their department. It would be unlikely for a data person to get that kind of opportunity."

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Welcome to the contradictory world of technology in the modern enterprise. Both the perception of IT's value and its status within an organization are in constant flux. The question is how to prove that value and maintain that status when IT's role as purveyor of all technology is nothing but a distant memory.

Just how distant is clear in the results of a recent report by managed services provider Logicalis, which surveyed 708 CIOs around the world to learn how the role of the CIO is changing. Among respondents, 84% reported that their companies' line of business departments employ their own IT staffs.

Forty percent of the CIOs said that they make 50% or less of the IT decisions for their companies. And 39% said that business departments buy their own technology without consulting IT "often," "very often" or "most of the time." Meantime, IT departments themselves perform a shrinking proportion of the technology work they still oversee, with 24% of the respondents saying they outsource more than 50% of their IT and only 9% saying they outsource none at all.

If outsourcing is the norm, and business departments outside IT are increasingly procuring their own technology, it may be time to ask exactly what IT's role and identity is in the modern workplace.

Smart CIOs, industry experts and publications like this one all agree that CIOs need a seat at the table; that IT must align itself with business objectives; and that IT can no longer act as a gatekeeper, exerting veto power over new technologies and forcing an organization to move slowly in these fast-paced times.

But once the industry has agreed on these principles, then what? How can IT continue to prove its worth in this changing business environment? How can IT leaders thrive in a constantly evolving world where less and less of their companies' technology is under their direct control? And should they be fighting to regain that control or learning to adapt instead?

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