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A personal look back at the changing role of IT

25 years ago

When I worked in management services in the gas industry, IT was seen as monolithic, unresponsive, inflexible, data centre-based and accessed almost exclusively in line of business mode. But that was 25 years ago. It's amazing how much things have changed. Now, of course, IT is nothing of the sort.

Back then, most of my time was spent looking at the relative costs and benefits of various suggested business changes and innovations - and IT was not typically considered here. Instead we mainly focused on managing the business' resources, outsourcing and changing processes. While we used IT in terms of spreadsheets to calculate ROI and other metrics, it was never an area which we felt could drive innovation.

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However, things then started to change; slowly at first and then very quickly indeed. Over the following five years, the PC infiltrated every business division. Managers were buying them with departmental - not central - budgets, as they offered increased productivity. Then as email grew, staff grew to like the integration of business and personal lives, so managers purchased even more.

Yet there still wasn't a strong business case for them. In fact, I was on the national working party that approved the company-wide Windows 3.11 strategy and I don't remember seeing any specific business case for the wholesale adoption of the PC across the organisation.

Letting the genie out

However, despite the lack of clear business objectives, we'd already let the genie out of the bottle. These new personal productivity tools were increasingly being used with whole new business systems, created from spreadsheets, databases, visual basic and a host of other tools. But these systems were without formal specification, design standards, data analysis or documentation.

Of course these new PCs and productivity tools led to performance gains in some areas, but the lack of planning opened up risks and vulnerabilities that we just hadn't foreseen. So we then spent a lot of time trying to stuff it back into the bottle.

The next few years were spent setting and applying standards to make sure that the new wave of PCs were effective business tools. That is, there was a direct link between their use and benefits to the business.

We worked on creating standards based on the desired benefits, managing those standards and locking down the tools (the PC, user interface and applications) so that they'd adhere to those standards, and creating central management systems to enforce the standards. That first project involved taking over 20,000 PCs and turning them from individually configured devices into standardised, efficient business tools - something that my team and I continue to do to this day.

Integral IT

The world has changed since those days and, looking through today's perspective, our actions back then may look draconian and regressive - they were right at the time, but not suited to today's world. The proliferation of new devices and platforms (social media, tablets, smartphones) has fundamentally changed the way we all interact with IT. and it has changed the expectations of both consumers and business executives.

For normal users, the rapid responses, feedback, approval and peer recognition provide what psychologists call "instant gratification", both on a personal and professional level. These tools are now no longer merely enjoyed, but considered by many to be necessary to people's quality of life.

Read more: How the role of the IT professional is changing (opens in new tab)

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At the same time for companies, IT is no longer peripheral to business processes. It is now integral, essential, mobile and, perhaps most importantly, tightly paired with business processes. Of course this doesn't mean that the demands for compliance, security, upgrades, enhancements, resilience and reliability have lessened, but that they are often assumed simply to be in place, even if this was never specified in the requirements.

A current view

This means a lot of changes in how IT is managed and used within an organisation. From our perspective, we can see three different influences on this.

The first is the IT department itself. The priority here is to maintain the efficiency of a complex, critical business tool that, at least until recently, changes relatively slowly. This has been the priority for the last 20 years and although the systems may change, the priority is unlikely to.

Then we have the users. As a group, the user population has now become hooked on rapidly evolving, semi-disposable technology that needs little or no configuration, maintenance or support (when it's working). The people in this group are used to using their own devices for work, as well as personal tasks.

Finally we have the expectation of what IT will deliver in support of the business and at what cost. These expectations are changing, as IT is now a driver in many changes and innovations.

As things transform, so must the IT department. No longer can it bring the three different aspects together through dictation or control. In fact, much of it is inherently outside the control of the IT department now. Instead IT departments must work with all these changes. They must create services that are accessible from the new consumer technology, but without compromising the enterprise's security; manage services that are agile and flexible, without compromising functionality; and promote services that are focused on user experience, because expectations around performance and quality have never been higher.

Read more: Business vs IT: Is the bloody battle about to end? (opens in new tab)

Fortunately for everyone, the toolbox available to create, manage and promote quality services has never been better stocked, with options for VDI, mobility, cloud computing and user experience monitoring. No longer are we trying to squeeze the genie back into the bottle. Instead, we are working with the genie - because now we understand it, include it in our considerations and can harness at least some of its power.

Ewan Anderson is the founder and CEO of Centralis (opens in new tab)