What’s new and improving about IT today?

Plus ça change…

Lab For anyone who has been in IT for a while, all that new and improved stuff can quite quickly feel like the same-old-same-old, repackaged for the latest generation of supposedly tech-literate masses. Still, the “I’ve seen it all before” game can be a dangerous one to play.

It is too easy (for example) to look at social media and relate it back to USENET newsgroups, or compare the current generation of mobile devices with Psion organisers. Good as all of these things were, they were different – based on what technology could offer at the time, and used by a minority of early adopters rather than the mainstream audiences of today.

As we look at some of the supposed developments filling the column inches today, however, equally dangerous is to look at what is “new and improved”, and believe that it obviates the need to take the past into account. Certain principles remain constant throughout the history of IT, and indeed the longer heritage of business. While we can indeed communicate with people around the globe at something approaching the speed of light, that doesn’t mean that the fundamental nature of human relationships has changed, whatever the twitterati might want us to believe.

Undoubtedly, some of today’s global organisations would not have existed without technology – but they are in a minority compared to the many more that have come and gone. Perhaps the biggest take-away from the dot-com boom and bust is that, just because a few pop-star businesses have thrived by riding on the coattails of innovation (think Amazon), that doesn’t mean there is room at the trough for more than a handful. No doubt the current wave of hype around everything social and cloud-based will spawn a few winners, but we only have to look at Bebo to see that innovation can be a fickle mistress, particularly for me-too start-ups whose main goal was to take the number two spot.

Meanwhile, the majority of organisations will be using a range of tools and technologies to help drive their business in the right direction, just as they always have, and making choices along the way about who should be responsible for what. The fundamental principle at play is “know what you are good at”.

No doubt since time immemorial, good management has involved focusing on the core attributes of the business and keeping key capabilities in house, generally while subcontracting (or more recently outsourcing) everything else. It’s the model that helped Dell grow so successfully in the Nineties, as well as companies like ARM, Symbian, Nike... the list goes on.

When Freeform Dynamics researched the attitudes of more forward-looking (and indeed profitable) organisations, we found some very interesting correlations – not least, that these were more likely to outsource their IT to third parties, and indeed adopt sourcing models such as software as a service (SaaS) or the fledgling capabilities we now refer to as “cloud computing”. But before we run away with the idea that such delivery mechanisms must be good, we also learned that such companies understand the importance of taking a top-down view of IT architecture, prioritising integration and interoperability.

We can learn a number of important lessons from this. First, while not being slaves to technology, it is the more forward-thinking businesses that get the balance right between what should stay in-house and what should be sourced externally, and then how to build, manage and indeed pay for the resulting environment. The two go hand in hand – successful adopters know that it is never about the technology alone, whatever the evangelists may imply about how simple and effective their technology capabilities might be.

This may sound like common sense, but like it or not we are moving towards a more service-centric world. Whether an organisation is buying in services from an external provider, or looking towards building a more flexible internal infrastructure which can be provisioned more dynamically according to demand, the requirement for certain skills – around architecture and integration, financing and contract negotiation – is on the increase.

We’re not saying that all senior IT managers should become business gurus and strategic IT leaders. Striking a balance is going to be a more humdrum way forward than aiming to be the next pop-star company. Perhaps your own organisation already has this stuff tapped - but from our research we don’t believe that will be true for the majority.

So if you have any insights or experience of how IT’s trendiest new areas should best be adopted, do share.

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