CXO

IT: Caught between a rock and a hard place.


I was reading a book the other night that had a couple of pages devoted to change. After reflecting on the information, I started thinking more about the dual demands that are placed on IT by organizations.

The first demand is to be a utility. By this I mean that the organization wants their IT to be as reliable as the electricity that flows into the building - No down time, always on, and as easy to use as plugging a power cord into a wall. Needless to say, this is no small feat and takes quite a bit of work to guarantee 24/7/365 with no mistakes.

Then we have all the experts saying that in order for IT to be successful, it must be agile, able to change at a moments notice, not only understanding business needs but also able to anticipate them and oh, by the way, help them work through the change that will need to take place in order to be successful.

Anyone hearing that Sesame Street song right about now about things not belonging together? Because if you look at the qualities that make one successful at being a utility, they don't necessarily mesh 100% with being an agile, lean, mean, change machine. Yet many of us try to do both everyday, with varying degrees of success.

These demands become increasingly harder as budgets shrink and IT staffing gets smaller all the time. If you talk to many CIOs, they feel that they are lucky to keep the lights on and they and their employees are going above and beyond just trying to keep services from eroding, let alone floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.

So how does one handle these "competing" demands? There are many different ways organizations have approached this quandary. Here are a few of them:

Outsourcing – The idea being that if you can't do it well yourself, let someone else do it. To be honest with you, I think the jury is still out on outsourcing. For every success story I hear, I hear two horror stories. I think the model of outsourcing smaller pieces or select functions will end up being the ideal way to go rather than the let's throw out the baby with the bathwater approach.

Creating different IT organizations within a single organization – I'm not talking decentralizing IT here, although that is another approach, but creating one IT organization whose sole purpose in life is to operate the "utility," while the other focuses on innovation and bringing new products and projects on line. To some degree, this can make sense. There are those IT professionals who are well suited to and prefer the routine of keeping things running reliably and those who hate maintenance and thrive on change and new development. Being able to split these roles apart can prove successful, provided both departments get what they need regarding resources. In many organizations, being able to focus on just one or the other and not both is a dream that will never become reality.

Decentralizing – As mentioned above, creating separate departmental IT operations that are closer to the customer can prove beneficial or detrimental and a duplication of effort depending on the culture of the organization.

In ideal circumstances, I think the best approach might be all of the above. Outsourcing of select functions (perhaps antivirus and intrusion detection or purchasing software as a service as an example) combined with two groups; one dedicated to service, and the other new development, with departmental IT that act as liaisons to both units.

As much as people might proclaim, there is no one right answer to the competing demands placed on IT and what works in one place may not work in another. Perhaps most important in this whole discussion is that IT management needs to make organization management realize that there is this conundrum of competing demands and that it is often an either or situation if budget cannot support both. I know that in many organizations, the "utility" portion of the business does not get any attention from customers and management if it is running correctly.

Ultimately, it is up to IT to try and strike a balance between the two and how they do that is often how they are judged. Lean too far one way and you're deemed inflexible and customer unfriendly. Lean too far in the other direction and you're accused of being responsive but unreliable. Cut it just right and people either love you or hate you – after all – you can't make everyone happy and everyone that carries an iPOD or a Blackberry seems to know how to do your job better than you do. Know this though: People get fired for leaning too far in either direction – but failing as the utility will hasten your exit far sooner than being unresponsive. But in either case – we are often caught between a rock and a hard place.

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