Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Merry War for IT Control: IT Strategy, Office Functionality and the Cloud

There is a war raging in every organisation. This war is described in popular culture in television programs such as “The IT Crowd” and in comic strips such as Dilbert. If there had been computers in Shakespeare’s time, he would also speak of the ‘tussle betwixt the guardians of IT and the gentlefolk of the office’.

The Winter of Our Discontent

The battle I speak of is the tension between controlling the systems which an office uses and providing enough functionality such that the job required can get done. There are many fronts on which this war is being raged. IT have long held the territory of ‘network access’, and rightly so, but the lines on the map are constantly moving. The new trend of bringing your own laptop will inevitably cause IT departments to lose some ground and the lands of ‘social networking’ are still very much in dispute.

Misery Acquaints a Man With Strange Bedfellows

Often the tools provided by IT are simply insufficient for office workers to do the job required of them. Whether it is an enterprise system which is designed such that one size fits all but does not, or it is simply the case that IT do not have a clear picture of the needs of the business, often users look elsewhere. Historically this has meant a proliferation of what Matt Johnson calls micro-IT. This ‘jury rigging’ often involves readily available, yet powerful, tools such as Excel and Access.

For Sweetest Things Turn Sourest By Their Deeds; Lilies That Fester Smell Far Worse Than Weeds

For those of us in consulting, we have all heard of large, household name organisations who literally run with thousands of bespoke Excel spread sheets, decentralised, unmanaged and whose inner workings are unfathomable. While it seems like a good idea at the time, as requirements and technology moves on, these barrier-removers become barriers in themselves. Inevitably they have to be deconstructed, rebuilt and often centralised so the pattern does not repeat again. However, the underlying problem remains. The same evolution that reveals the sin, opens up the possibility for further transgressions.

The Undiscovered Country From Whose Bourn No Traveler Returns

A new weapon has now entered the field of combat; the cloud. The ability to run significant parts of a business’ IT function with little more than a web browser is a revolution and the ultimate equaliser on the battlefield. The ability to go to the web, provide a credit card number and access, for example, an enterprise-ready CRM system means the traditional gatekeepers of technology are completely bypassed. In terms of what percentage of users will bypass the IT department in the future and go direct to the cloud, the jury is still out. Industry analysts say up to 50% and that it will increase over time. Brad Wilson, GM of Microsoft Dynamics CRM, is more conservative suggesting 10%. I agree with Brad on this one, assuming IT arm themselves with the same weapons and get a better appreciation of their role in business.

Every Subject's Duty is the King's; But Every Subject's Soul is His Own

Every employee in an organization has one master; the strategic direction guiding the business. This is true for both the office workers and the IT department. How well this strategy is articulated and how well it is translated into action determines everything else. The IT department, on a tactical level, is there to ensure the smooth running of the technology in the business. Often this manifests itself as keeping a tight control on the systems provided to the office workers. While a little less control could allow users to do their job more efficiently or effectively, it also opens the systems up to more risk of failure. When an IT department has scarce resources and is punished when systems go down, a policy of tight control is a logical one.

The office workers are there to do their job as effectively as possible. If the worker is in sales, traditionally they will be motivated financially to bring in sales to maximise revenue. This is where I often see the weapon of the cloud employed first. If a CRM system will allow a salesperson to handle ten times as many leads and bring in ten times as much revenue, it soon becomes a numbers game as to whether they should pull out their own credit card and go to the cloud.

While, historically, flanking the enemy and establishing your own IT systems required an Excel or Access guru in the office, this is no longer the case. Cloud applications, such as Dynamics CRM, are very easy to use (given they work like Outlook) and can be configured with no code. In terms of support, online forums also reduce the relevance of IT as the internet has an answer for everything and, when it does not, you ask and a friendly MVP or product evangelist steps up and gives you everything you need. In my experience on the online forums, if I do not get to a question within 24 hours, someone else will have already provided an answer. In terms of the internal equivalent, in one case, one of my customer’s (also a household name) IT department literally took six weeks to provision and set up a new laptop for one of its workers. When considering this level of internal service, it makes sense to go elsewhere.

All Things Are Ready, If Our Minds Be So

The fundamental problem is that, in many organisations, IT is not managed as a vital, strategic component to a business but simply seen as administration. While tactically, the IT department may be there to ensure the smooth day-to-day running of the business’ technology, strategically they must ensure the systems in place allow the workers to do the job the business needs them to do. If the users are building Excel spread sheets or employing SaaS systems to control vital aspects of the business, IT needs to know about it and, rather than accept it, they should see it as a direct criticism that they are not doing their job effectively and act immediately. If staff needed to bring their own chairs and desks to work, this would be seen as a failing of Human Resources and addressed immediately. The same it true for IT.

From a business perspective, just as the sales and marketing departments are given incentives to align them to the needs of the business, so too should the IT department be given incentives beyond ‘make sure stuff does not break’. What the incentives are will depend on the business and their needs. However, if the workers are bypassing IT and obtaining significant technological functionality without them, this clearly indicates that IT is strategically irrelevant; a matter that needs to be addressed for the overall health of the business.


It is understandable that IT fear giving their users too much control and it is also understandable that IT departments fear becoming irrelevant at the hands of cloud SaaS offerings. However, if all IT is there for is to provision Active Directory and Exchange accounts, configure laptops and maintain servers, they have already lost the battle. The resolution of this war, as is often the case, is through diplomacy. Both sides need to understand each other through communication and IT need to gain a better understanding of their role within the larger business context.

The best case I have seen of this kind of strategy is with the IT services group for a large government body. In this case they use Dynamics CRM on-premise. However, the implementation is irrelevant, it is how the system is used that is important. The group has recognised that each government department has very different needs and, even within a department, different systems are needed to handle different processes.

Each time a new process is discovered, which is inefficient and relying on paper processes or bespoke systems, a new organization (for those not in the Dynamics CRM world, think of this as a new CRM database) is provisioned in CRM and the system configured to meet the needs of the business. This is the best of all worlds. The users get the system they need to do their job effectively, IT maintain control but, more importantly, they have the opportunity to see the bigger picture. If another area of the business has similar needs to an existing CRM system in place, lessons learned can guide the new system and the design and code can be reused, rather than reinvented.

The cloud is an excellent weapon but it, and all applications in general, should be wielded by IT for the benefit of the users and the business as a whole. Only if all the tools of technology provision are managed centrally can they be aligned with each other and to the goals of the business; true strategic IT.

No comments: