The New Role of IT

Demands have changed in this cloud-based world.

As the cloud and other developments continue to change the ways small businesses deploy and use technology, IT departments must adapt. Long gone are the days when most IT environments looked the same — a few Windows servers in a closet and a Windows PC on every desk — when all the IT department had to worry about was keeping everything running smoothly year after year.

Now we see a variety of different approaches and an overwhelming number of available applications. As a firm believer in technology’s ability to make a meaningful difference in a typical small business’s operation, I view the availability of options and fast pace of change as a great opportunity, but the potential for wasted time, poor implementation and security vulnerabilities means that they are also a threat. The IT department’s job is to take advantage of the former and avoid the latter.

At the same time, the cloud tends to reduce certain technical demands on IT, as cloud providers take on more of the responsibility for underlying infrastructure, a trend that is likely to continue.

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Combining these factors, I propose that the effectiveness of an IT department is no longer determined primarily by its ability to manage and support purely technical things, but by its ability to apply technology to make substantial improvements in the business. Accordingly, the skills to look for in an IT department should expand beyond technical configuration, administration, troubleshooting and support to include broader abilities like sound decision making, an understanding of business processes and keeping up with change.

Sound Decision Making

A key facet of the IT department’s new role is to guide the organization into making good decisions. Whereas important and thoughtful IT decisions used to arise once every year or two, now non-trivial IT decisions are seemingly a constant. Sometimes it’s a fundamental question of architecture (on premise, private cloud, public cloud, SAAS, all of the above?), but often it’s more like deciding whether the latest that the boss is talking about is worth pursuing. App vendors have become good at removing direct cost as an obstacle in the decision process, putting even more importance on a thorough analysis of the true costs and benefits. Individually, such decisions may seem minor, but collectively they are precisely the difference between an improvement or a decline in productivity.

Understanding of Business Processes

The good news is that there are many new applications that have real benefit and are worth using when implemented well. The degree to which IT can automate business processes and improve efficiency for small businesses is astonishing. I perceive a shift from a time when IT systems were tools that helped us perform back office and other functions to a time when IT systems perform those functions automatically with our input and guidance. But to make such a vision reality, the IT department needs more than a surface understanding of the way the business works. To improve a process in a substantial way, IT needs to understand where it’s inefficient and what can realistically be done about it.

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Keeping Up

Central to my distinction between the old way and the new way of doing things is the notion that the new entails much more change than the old. Part of the perceived and actual problem with IT departments historically has been a resistance to change. Change means risk, and change means work, so the tendency often is to avoid it.  

When the non-obvious, incremental improvements offered by technology were modest and somewhat sparse, this attitude was relatively harmless, even appropriate. But now that the opportunity for improvement is large and quickly evolving, that attitude is irresponsible. Experience is good and necessary, but in the new IT world, a desire to learn and willingness to adapt are even better.

Steven Ellis has spent the last 16 years working at the intersection of business and technology for Bellwether Technology in New Orleans, where he serves as the company’s vice president.

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