Design an innovation-friendly IT management strategy around the cloud
Innovation is either just a hopeful buzzword, or an attitude ingrained in the culture of a business. Get it right, and a transformational mindset will send your business galloping forward. Until recently, technology itself could be complex enough to keep the brakes on, but thanks to the cloud and some innovative management practices, that’s no longer the case.
Open the business pages of any newspaper, and you will invariably see two types of story side-by-side. One will be yet another mournful litany of endless recession; the other a company bucking the trend with innovative working practices and remarkable new products. Every business wants to be in the second category, and technology is a very good place to start.
Peter Boggis, Founding Partner of change management consultants, Formicio, says,” IT has a unique role to play in enabling innovation whether it is through the introduction of Web 2.0-based collaboration platforms, access to cloud-based applications or implementing business platforms based upon integrated packages. For years, businesses have sought the ability to be agile and adapt quickly to new ideas. By implementing agile enterprise architectures, business colleagues can get closer to this goal.”
Cliff Evans, Chief Digital Officer at technology consultants, Capgemini agrees that a smart integration of cloud services can help businesses of any size to leapfrog the competition. “What matters is the ability to be adaptable; to move quickly in response to the different needs of consumers. We now have the ability to choose services, join them together, and try things, what we call ‘test and learn’. In the old world you’d spend a lot of time making a plan, evaluating a technology, and then implementing it. In the new world, you’ll string together multiple services, test them and learn from it. The cloud regime gives you lots of opportunity to evolve fast.”
The consumer is tyrant
But don’t get too comfortable. Innovation is no longer in the hands of middle-aged bearded men in darkened garages. Nor do large companies have a monopoly on good ideas. The consumer is king, and the consumer is fickle, too. They have adopted technologies like mobile and social media, and use them to own outright their relationship with businesses. Not only can they damage your reputation; they can switch to ‘the new thing’ en masse, without warning: think MySpace or Friends Reunited for big examples. Says Evans, “The choice has been taken away from business owners. It’s difficult to predict what the next best thing is, and it won’t be a linear change, it could be a step change, so you need to be able to adapt quickly.”
Evans therefore recommends a convincing model of IT management in which the technology in an organisation should move at different speeds of change, where the rate of change increases the closer you get to the consumer. Collaboration tools, a website and customer services, for example, might live in the cloud; customer histories and credit card transactions might belong in a central repository. “Clearly that speed of change is often driven by the availability of cloud services so we embrace that; but also the idea of how you plug and play different services – both cloud and traditional in-house, to manage it all as a coherent whole. You need a framework which defines your comfort zone of control and security.”
A new role for technologists at all levels
Rapid-iteration technology, driven by consumer demand, requires that IT managers work in a fundamentally different way; one with new managerial, commercial and technical skills. Boggis says that technologists need to take a wholly proactive role in business strategy: “Most long-standing innovations are technology-enabled and IT’s role must be to identify, evaluate and facilitate their successful application for business value”. Evans endorses this: “We talk about ‘digital ambition’”, he says. “Don’t go to the board with a ‘vision’, go with things you can actually do, fast, measurably, and with clear value to the business.”
Operationally, IT teams need fewer deep technical skills, but must become managers of a federation of externally managed services. “They need to appreciate how these services will connect together”, says Evans. “How will each one work when another link in the chain fails? Because at some stage, it will! What commercial protections are built in to each partner relationship? And how will you manage updates; because each of your providers will have their own update cycles. IT management in a cloud-enabled business is about orchestration: marshalling several technical elements so that they always represent the best interests of the business. In the old days, IT managers were fixed on fails - you tried never to have to touch the systems. In the new world, you must assume you’ll always be touching them, because change is simply constant.”
The last line of defence
Finally, IT managers, in sync with business owners, must remember that in a federated technology world, they remain the responsible party to their clients. “You’re still ultimately responsible to your customers and for the structures you use”, says Evans. “You must be the owner of and expert in your information architectures; the data flows and what information comes in and out; so that nothing gets forgotten or lost.”
Similarly, Boggis says that IT should become a guardian of best practice: “IT has a ‘duty of care’ in terms of preventing bad things happening. Information access and security are obvious examples. Business colleagues should not be discouraged from being innovative, but sometimes IT has a legitimate right to say ‘we could achieve the same outcome in a different – and safer – way’.” Change is now a default, and businesses must discover how to turn on a sixpence. A revitalised technology team, aligned with line-of-business and operations, is central to delivering an environment in which ‘test and learn’ can generate whole new business opportunities.
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