If you were to start a business today, would you hire an IT team?

This question was asked recently on Twitter, and it caused me to reflect on my own technology career. Coming from an IT and operations background, I've seen a few changes over my 20+ year career. I’ve worked with numerous collaboration platforms and solutions: enterprise content management (ECM), product lifecycle management (PLM), business intelligence platforms, supply chain solutions, software configuration management (SCM), SharePoint, integrated instant messaging and web meeting clients. In addition, I have fully embraced the rise of social computing solutions and made them part of my day-to-day activities. While I have worn many hats, the majority of my career has been spent in and around the information technology organization.

The impact of the changes to IT has been felt across every industry. This past decade has seen some of the most dramatic changes to technology of our lifetimes, and that rate of change and innovation will only increase. The role of IT within this changing world can be diverse, and has changed with the many shifts in technology. It's no longer about phone lines, copy equipment and basic connectivity. That view of IT is dead. The cloud has commoditized many traditional aspects of the IT role, such as email, server management, intranet ownership.

We no longer hire someone to run cables through our offices, we outsource it. Wireless devices are largely plug-and-play, and new offices come wired for the information worker. Most of the traditional IT activities have become self-service. Even the need for a PBX has diminished with cell phone services that provide the same capabilities and more, at a dramatically less expensive entry point.

IT Does Not Go Away

With this perspective, my initial response to the question above was no, I would not hire an IT team today. Given the scenario of a small team with limited funds and no specific technology focus, the only way to answer the question is to say no. They are not needed. Those dollars are better spent in product and marketing investments to help the business grow.

However, this limited view of IT capabilities is not how I view the world. It may not make sense for most small to medium businesses (SMB) to hire dedicated personnel, but we don’t live in a world of technology absolutes. Many companies will be able to reduce expenses and headcount by moving to the cloud. Large enterprises will likely still need someone onsite to own these activities, but arguably a much smaller number that were required 10 years ago to manage the same responsibility.

I do not believe IT goes away. Why is that? I believe IT is a much more strategic activity. The day-to-day functions of the role will continue to change, yes, but also how the role is perceived and utilized will expand. Real value will be in how IT resources (we're talking about people here) will be used going forward, moving from server maintenance to productivity-focused activities:

  • Building out and maintaining intranet / extranet solutions, maintaining line of business application integrations
  • Targeted solutions to solve specific problems (such as vertical solutions for HR, sales operations, etc.)
  • Focusing more on business analyst functions
  • Tighter alignment with the needs of the company, especially during growth phases

From Traditional IT to Strategic IT

Technology speculators would like you to believe the business world is moving to the cloud now. The reality is that the future looks more like a hybrid model. More and more businesses will need people who understand how to bridge the two worlds -- problem solvers who can span the gap of technology and business productivity, helping move traditional IT roles into much more strategic roles that help companies achieve a competitive edge.

The key to realizing this shift from traditional IT to strategic IT is to understand your business and where technology can be better utilized to optimize, improve and enhance the business:

  • Understand what can be outsourced to the cloud. Can your business handle the downtime, or the reduced functionality?
  • Be realistic about the quality of service being provided (QoS), the service level agreements offered (SLA).
  •  Know the difference between marketing and reality -- more than ever, call those customer references before adding a new vendor or service and understand the risks.

Ignore the Technology Speculators

I am all for the future in the cloud. Being on the bleeding edge of technology can be exciting. But what has been true about the last 100 years of technology predictions remains true today: Reality always looks different than the predictions. At the end of the day, you need to know that your IT decisions are driving business value (and revenue). Your best bet is to ignore the technology speculators and do what is best for your business, period.

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