Leadership

10 challenges facing IT

From retaining top talent to building a positive public image to innovating despite budget constraints, IT has plenty of obstacles to overcome. Alan Norton provides an overview of some of the big challenges that lie ahead.

IT is always facing challenges. Some of these challenges have slowly changed over time, but many of them are perennial offenders. How will IT meet these challenges today and in the near future? Where do they rank in order of importance at the company where you work?

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Customer service

IT suffers from a bad reputation when it comes to satisfying customer needs. Unfortunately, it is often well deserved. Too many times, the work is done incorrectly or not to the customer's requirements -- and it is the customer who ultimately determines what is good customer service and what is not.

My dad recently needed a new hard drive installed and he asked to have his personal Quicken files removed from the old drive. He received the computer with a new drive and a hefty service fee but without the critical files he asked for. It left me wondering what type of computer repair shop couldn't accomplish my dad's simple request.

Corporate IT has similar challenges with its customer service. There may be a lot of truth to the statement "The customer needs to be told what they want." However, the tone of the "recommendation" by the computer expert often comes across as arrogant. The customer may be ignorant but they are rarely stupid -- and they don't like being treated as such. A little better bedside manner offering education and choice is far preferable to a simple "you need this" approach to customer service.

Challenge #1: Improve customer service by listening to and meeting the client's needs. Make customer service job number one.

2: Human resources

Burnout is an ever increasing concern as budgets become tighter and workloads increase. Creative ways need to be found to reduce stress and revitalize tired workers. More vacation time, sabbaticals, temporarily reduced responsibilities -- anything that can give the IT professional a break should be considered. This might seem costly, but losing a valued employee due to burnout can be far more costly.

It has always bothered me when I or a fellow workmate requested a transfer only to have the request ignored or denied, seemingly without any thoughtful consideration. Organizational structures are not conducive to employee sharing and growth. Managers just don't want to give up a key member of their staff. The truly exceptional companies find ways to maximize their employees' full potential. After all, what is a company if not its people and their skills?

Challenge #2: Develop creative ways to minimize stress, satisfy employee needs, and match corporate needs to employee goals.

3: Productivity

First came the mainframes, then the minicomputers, PCs, and the Internet. Each was a tremendous technological leap that greatly increased user productivity. What will be the next great productivity innovation? The cloud? Mobile computing? Can these technologies deliver real, significant productivity gains? The law of unintended consequences warns that issues will arise with the introduction of any new technology. To name a few, security and privacy for cloud services and increased stress and burnout for employees tethered to mobile devices 24x7. Until these concerns are resolved, any productivity gains must be carefully weighed against the negatives before mainstream adoption.

Challenge #3: Make the best use of new technologies like cloud and mobile computing but search out additional ways to increase productivity.

4: Complexity

If you look at the progression of software from the introduction of the IBM PC to today's systems, one obvious trend is irrefutable: The IT world has gotten increasingly complex. The complexity is rapidly reaching a point of critical mass, where one single developer can no longer know everything needed to be proficient at his or her job. Because of this, teamwork is more important than ever. Forget KISS -- it's a complex world and it is getting more complicated every day.

Challenge #4: Manage and tame the complexity beast.

5: Obsolescence

Everything from the PC you are using to the skills needed to perform your job seem to become obsolete in three to five years. As costs continue to be scrutinized, IT needs to find a way to reduce the costs of obsolescence. Expect Microsoft to continue the trend of planned obsolescence as it adheres to a regular release cycle. But upgrading to every new release of Windows may be one of the first costs to go. It is getting harder for companies to justify the costs without real documented productivity increases.

Obsolescence poses another problem: Which development software will still be around 10 years from now? Pick the wrong horse and you may be faced with the same challenge as those who were still supporting OS/2 in the late 1990s. OS/2 experts were as rare as original IBM PCs by then, but IBM was more than willing to help -- for a considerable price.

Challenge #5: Increase the productive life of systems, software, and equipment.

6: Budgets

Meeting budget constraints is tough even in the best of times. It is especially challenging during hard times. Most IT budgets are expected to grow in 2011, but they continue to be tight. The growth of cloud computing and mobile technology will require more attention and resources. Managers will be faced with the tough decisions of how best to meet existing budget needs while still planning for the future.

Challenge #6: Accomplish more with budgets similar to last year.

7: Marketing/public relations

Aside from a handful of tech companies like Apple and Google, IT suffers from a poor public relations image. It may be an honest assessment for Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to state, "If people want to wait they really can. But I'd definitely deploy Vista." But when a statement like that leads to headlines like "Ballmer says it's okay to skip Windows Vista," you have a problem. Analytical thinkers make poor marketers.

Hiring a PR firm can be well worth the expense, but even then a nasty faux pas can occur. South By SouthWest Interactive engaged Ink PR to meet its marketing needs. Ink PR came up with this speaker's tip for South By SouthWest Interactive 's green rooms: "A speech should be like a woman's skirt: long enough to cover the topic, yet short enough to be interesting." It has been said that any publicity is good publicity. But ask South By SouthWest Interactive if it thinks Ink PR's marketing gaffe was good for its corporate image.

Challenge #7: If you don't have the expertise, hire marketing and PR experts who can get it right.

8: Multinational operations

The global economy is upon us. It is increasingly common to find offices and data centers in countries halfway around the world. And with this transition come a number of challenges. Travel, language, and time zone differences are all issues that must be addressed. But far and away the greatest challenge will likely be overcoming the cultural differences and changing the "us versus them" mindset. Emotions run high for those who have been affected by outsourcing. Salary differences between countries can lead to resentment. Both are difficult people problems to solve.

Challenge #8: Instill a culture of teamwork among international team members with diverse backgrounds and varying ethnicities.

9: The mobile generation

In 10 high-tech gadgets I can live without, I noted my dislike for mobile devices. I didn't like the electronic leashes that constantly tied me to work when I needed some downtime. The mobile generation appears to be poised to overtake the PC generation as users spend more time using their mobile devices. However, a caveat should be included in any discussion of the onset of the mobile generation. Any productivity gains achieved using mobile technology in the workplace may be more than offset by the additional burdens placed on the IT workforce during nonworking hours.

Challenge #9: Make use of mobile technology without tearing down the virtual wall between work and family and leisure time.

10: Data storage and retrieval

It is not obvious since most data needs are short-term, but there is trouble lurking in those data archives. Perhaps you are an unknowing victim of this silent crisis in the making. If you have important files on those old 5 1/4-inch floppies and you need to go back and retrieve one, you may be out of luck. Chances are that that the data is no longer readable and the device you need to read the media has long since been tossed into the trash bin. Or, as in my case, turning on the old antique microcomputer to read my single-sided, single-density floppies might lead to a fire and the quick end of your weekend data retrieval project.

As our data ages, it needs to be continually transferred to fresh media. The problem is bit rot, and it happens with every type of media, from disk drives to DVDs. Shelf life varies by media type and manufacturer. Magnetic tape is claimed to be the best, with a shelf life of up to 30 years in optimal conditions, but even it eventually succumbs to the ravages of time.

Challenge #10: Determine what data, if any, is susceptible to bit rot and transfer to new media before it becomes a problem.

The bottom line

Throughout this article, I have written about IT as if it were some amorphous creature existing out there, somewhere. It's not. IT is you. You will have to address these challenges, and that can be a daunting task. But what can you do personally? IT has met challenges like these in the past and it has been the creative, out-of-the-box thinkers who have been most successful. New ways of doing business will be required. You can be part of this change by doing your job to the best of your ability. You can also recognize how your job can be changed to meet these challenges, no matter how small the part you may play -- and that can make a big difference company-wide. Answering the following questions will assist in finding ways that you can help.

  • What can you do to:
  • Improve your customer service?
  • Reduce employee stress?
  • Increase your productivity?
  • Simplify your job?
  • Make your tools useful longer?
  • Lower costs to meet budgets?
  • Improve client relationships?
  • Work better with international peers?
  • Follow reasonable corporate mobile device use?
  • Prevent data loss due to bit rot?

Turning each of these challenges into opportunities is the hallmark of the most successful companies. Meeting these challenges is what will eventually separate the winners from the losers.

About

Alan Norton began using PCs in 1981, when they were called microcomputers. He has worked at companies like Hughes Aircraft and CSC, where he developed client/server-based applications. Alan is currently semi-retired and starting a new career as a wri...

17 comments
EduardoAndres
EduardoAndres

I have been in the IT industry for a number of years now, and it amazes me that we still are talking about the same challenges, and pretending we have an answer for them. Over the years, companies from all over the world had to deal with the same problems the author is sharing in this article. In fact, since the invention of computers and the massification of the PC into the public market with Windows, every year companies try to figure out a way to lower costs, be more productive, increase infrastructure, ect. However, the world is flat as Thomas Friedman would put it, and now the challenges explained in this article are just habits inherited from generation to generation. We have the technology to create a more collaborative environment. Globalization has open the door to lower costs and share ideas. But what do we do? We are still thinking in the old way ... this is ... how can I do this? ... We are not asking ourselves how can WE do this. This is the time to re-think the way we approach IT. We are no longer an island and all the challenges explained in this article could be avoided by just paying attention to what is happening around us. Just think for a minute, cloud computing ... well ... what comes up? This is a key component to avoid at least 6 of the problem mentioned above. Any thoughts?

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

I suffered through a 50% RIF over 9+ years. I like to think I was retained because I was one of the best. It was probably because the systems I developed saved manpower. I always felt fortunate to be one of the survivors. I understand your point - employees are plug and play. Fortunately, I never worked at such a company. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

David Chassels
David Chassels

Sadly IT has evolved to make business complex. Vendors sell components and until now the choice is either COTS and you mould your business to the "system" - ERP the worst culprit - OR you custom code using variuos components in hope you get what you want? Business is actually simple it is about People in their daily work, individually and collectively achieving outcomes. Such business logic has nothing to do with the hugely complex delivery and security technologies yet most vendors mix it up thus we have unneccessary complexity - nicely summerised in an article titled ???IT Today: Unsustainable, unhealthy and just plain screwed??? . So how does business move forward and see innovation start the new journey to fix the complexity? Some interesting Ideas from UK Government initiative in their Innovation Launch Pad - including mine which you can read here http://bit.ly/hmqQfF. Real innovation never comes from the big vendors so good to see ideas from SMEs and individuals being published - but are you listening at the end of the day it is up to you to force such change?

GreenPirogue
GreenPirogue

Burnout is an issue - and HR (and management) does not seem to get it. Our workload has increased about 50% in the past year, and they have cut IT spending/training to save money. If this was a one-year plan, that would be bearable. But this started in 2008 - during the financial crisis. The company started piling up money before their income changed. We have been in a hiring freeze since 2008 - yet two senior executives left and were replaced. Several other senior managers were given promotions. But if we lose staff in the exempt (but not manager) area, we just can't hire anyone. The company execs still say we are doing poorly, but when you look at the 10Q reports, they tell a different story. Yeah, I know that how they handle depreciation, inventory, etc., impacts the bottom line, but still, it looks like we are more profitable than before. My skills are valuable, and I can get a job somewhere else. I like my co-workers, but I am on the fence about leaving (I expect another offer in a week or two). HR does not understand that when you make things uncomfortable, the most skilled can easily leave.

jkameleon
jkameleon

> After all, what is a company if not its people and their skills? Company is shareholders and their profits. People and their skills are just necessary evil. Sad, but true. From this point of view, the most simple and elegant solution to the burnout challenge is to monitor employee wear indicators and change when necessary. Since there is a lasting global overabundance of the IT talent, the above solution is also quite profitable, because every new batch of employees hired will be cheaper than the previous ones.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Many of the challenges on this list have little or nothing to do with technology. IT professionals are good at technology. It is what the people who chose IT as a career love to do and it is why they do it so well. Other challenges, including the management of human resources, they are not so good at. Challenge #1 - Customer service: You may find it irritating that users get their image of IT from the large retail store or local PC repair shop but that is reality. Two ways to better customer service: Take the time to explain the problem and what it will take to fix it. Give the client more than one option and discuss the pluses and minuses of each option. I was careful trying to understand the whole story with my dad's computer. He took the computer in because it was slow. Since the hard drive was already about 4 years old, part of the request was to put in a new hard drive. He also said he needed his Quicken files that were on the old drive. He even told the tech where to find the files and the file names. When he didn't get the files he inquired as to why. My dad said the tech told him that he needed a special program to access the file(s). I had no problem accessing the files on the drive and retrieving them. This was the repair shop of a large box store. Even if my dad got the instructions wrong, which I don't think he did, the repair shop made a number of mistakes. They did not listen to the customer and they did not verify that the customer was satisfied. Challenge #2 - Human resources: A policy of limited interdepartmental employee transfers would attract new employees and add an incentive for current employees to stay. Challenge #3 - Productivity: Without continued improvement in productivity, IT will face further pressures for cost containment and lose its luster as the solution to business problems. Challenge #4 - Complexity: I have learned enough HTML, CSS, Javascripting and PHP to have empathy for the complexity of the skills needed by the Web developer. Multiple browsers add additional complexity to the coding and testing. Take Windows for example. NT 3.1 is estimated to have 4-5 million lines of code. Windows Vista, the latest Windows OS for which I could find information, is estimated to be more than 50 million lines of code. Challenge #6 -Budgets: Yeah, I know. BORING! You can't have a list of challenges facing IT without including budgets. Challenge #7 - Marketing/public relations - Ask a person who was a Microsoft shareholder at the time about Ballmer's statement and see what they think of his PR skills. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are exceptions. They are both analyticals with visionaries and they are able to effectively communicate their visions to the non-technical. Challenge #8 - Multinational operations: I have worked with peers from Singapore, the Netherlands, the U.K. and Australia and found the differences in cultures and personalities fascinating, though challenging at times. For example, the Singapore group wanted to jump ahead of me in my presentation. Challenge #9 - The mobile generation: I can see mobile devices overtaking PCs at home and on the road but not in the workplace - at least not anytime soon. Perhaps that is only because the perfect mobile device for work has yet to be built. Challenge #10 - Data archival and retrieval: If you think crisis is too strong a word consider the unfortunate case of the company facing a lawsuit or government audit and their supporting evidence is stored on unreadable media. And there are other problems as well. What type of devices will be there to do the data transfer 25 years from now? For all of the amazing technology invented to support computing, paper still remains the most reliable archive media for archives older than 30 years. Of course, paper is impractical in the data age. For the purists, punched tape and punched cards can store data more than thirty years but are obsolete. Media that can reliably store data for hundreds or even thousands of years is needed. Any inventors out there? In case you were wondering, even PROMS and EPROMS lose data as they age. I can hear you Linux fans stomping your feet and yelling "open source" as the answer to both budget and obsolescence. The penguin may make inroads but only limited market share growth in the near future. I read about people complaining about the learning curve from XP to Vista or Windows 7 and have to laugh. How can Linux gain market share with that type of mentality? Moving from Windows to Linux - now there is an example of a real learning curve. I will be available to answer any questions or add to the commentary when I have something to add.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

And the tax code will be simplified one day. Yeah right. ;-) We can hope that IT can be smarter than government but I have this sneaking suspicion that IT will use technology to manage the complexity rather than finding ways to simplify the complex.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

I didn't realize it at the time but burnout was a factor in leaving my last job. People don't always make rational decisions when burned out. I am sorry to hear that you have a similar situation. I know from experience that it is hard to keep a positive attitude when you have been pushed too hard - you want to throw up your hands and give up. I hope you can find some peace and wish you the best.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

...their people. Not the buildings, not the shareholders or investors and not its products or services. Capital is a requirement for most businesses but that can come from a number of sources - venture capitalists, loans or net income. Money looks and accomplishes the same no matter what the source. If you are suggesting that people are interchangeable and their skills, personality and overall demeanor don't matter, I would have to disagree.

jkameleon
jkameleon

I vaguely remember I came across an article about a solution to this problem years ago. It was in Scientific American, I think, about time capsules meant for future archeologists to discover. The media would be durable metal alloy with data etched on it with laser, similar to CD. Data would be etched at different densities. The reading & decoding instructions for the lowest density data would be written & pictorial. The reading & decoding instructions for the higher densities would be written in lower densities. > Moving from Windows to Linux Not a problem, IMHE. Recently I dedicated a disk partition on my newest box for dual boot out of professional curiosity, windows weariness, and for the old times sake. Namely, I started my career on Unix & Unix-like systems decades ago. For me, moving from XP to Ubuntu was almost as easy as moving from XP to Windows 7, in certain aspects even easier. Right now, I hardly ever boot my box in Windows mode, and regret that I dedicated only 200 gigs to Linux.

jkameleon
jkameleon

... and expendable. Today's big business can't function in any other way. Right or wrong, agreeable or disagreeable- that's how it is.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Interesting. Sounds a bit like the gold plated records sent with the Voyager spacecraft. The records are a durable archive medium. I would be interested to know the data capacity and cost per MB of the super-discs you are referencing.

jkameleon
jkameleon

Global supply of IT talent greatly surpasses the demand. That means low prices, and expandability. > I worked at Hughes Aircraft Company, admittedly long after Mr. Hughes prime, but his legacy of hiring the best lived on. Under Boeing, it could only die http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/09_44/b4153065919516.htm > I was fortunate to have worked with the best and don't believe that they are nearly as interchangeable as Human Resources might like to think. If business can afford to consider the human resources expendable, it will.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

I agree that everyone is replaceable. Some are just more replaceable than others. :-) Howard Hughes was known for hiring the brightest and best, whether it was engineers, pilots or lawyers. I worked at Hughes Aircraft Company, admittedly long after Mr. Hughes prime, but his legacy of hiring the best lived on. I was fortunate to have worked with the best and don't believe that they are nearly as interchangeable as Human Resources might like to think.

jkameleon
jkameleon

Burned CDs/DVDs can become unreadable in 5-10 years even if left untouched. Printed ones last longer. In any case, they are absolutely, positively unsuitable for long term archiving. I proposed glass because it does not chemically degrade over time like plastic.

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

I agree that the polycarbonate and acrylic sandwich used for CDs and DVDs needs to be improved. They are easily damaged through normal use. I borrow DVDs from the local library and they can quickly become scratched and unreadable. It is really annoying when you get to the best part of a movie and pixelation starts to appear and then the movie stops. I returned one badly scratched DVD to the librarian who told me that it had been loaned out 63 times. Edit: Changed acrylic to polycarbonate and acrylic.

jkameleon
jkameleon

... but for the applications like Voyager or time capsule, price doesn't matter. The cheaper variant could look similar to CD. Instead of plastic, it could be made from two glass plates with a layer of vapor-deposited metal in between. This would be reasonably cheap, while much more durable than plastic CDs. Maybe it could even fit the standard CD drive. The way I see it, the main challenge of the long term data storage is the medium, not the reader.