Changing Role of IT
Thomas Paine once said, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” and that has never more true for corporate IT than today. 

The Employees have Taken Over the Workplace

The concurrent social, mobile and cloud revolutions offer new opportunities for savvy CIOs and their IT departments because the balance of power of who dictates which technology can be used for work is clearly shifting; business users are becoming increasingly influential and proactive about selecting the technologies they choose for work. Some examples of this shift in power include the following:

  • A small project team subscribes to Dropbox or Box cloud services to share documents with outside contractors, without getting approval from IT.
  • User groups of "unsanctioned" software create their own support groups outside the corporate IT framework.
  • Employees employ consumer technologies like LinkedIn, Twitter and even Facebook to search for expertise and to share information inside and outside the organization.
  • Workers participate in online meetings from smartphones and iPads using tools like GoToMeeting or Webex that have been purchased using discretionary departmental budgets.
  • Employees take advantage of BYOD programs to purchase and then use mobile devices to read email and call colleagues, without getting IT involved.

So what does all this mean for the role of CIO and their IT staff?

CIOs as Strategic Advisors  

I recently spoke with Lee Congdon, CIO of Red Hat, the open source company and a pioneer in the brave new world of “using a community-powered approach to provide reliable and high-performing cloud, virtualization, storage, Linux and middleware technologies.”

Red Hat has approximately 5500 associates (employees) worldwide, about half of them in the US, with the rest spread out over a number of continents. With such a diverse, distributed employee community building high-tech products, Red Hat has turned to social collaboration and the strength of internal communities as a source of innovation. And that has changed the role of IT and that of the CIO.

Congdon says that he sees the job of today’s corporate IT departments as a function that advises, guides and supports rather than coerces people into using specific tools and services. The new role of the CIO is to serve as a strategic leader who focuses on the business challenges his/her organization faces and then offer solutions.

Giving Employees Choice, Giving IT Time

When it comes to providing traditional IT services, Congdon says his organization provides a standard package of tools and services like Linux computers, loaded with LibreOffice for office applications and Thunderbird for email. This standard package is supported by IT and is available to all employees. But associates are free to select other products and services, in which case they receive support via internal communities of users who communicate via email distribution lists or service portals. If a particular product or service becomes popular enough inside the company, IT adopts it as a corporate standard and makes it part of the centrally-supported IT package.

This approach allows IT to invest its efforts supporting products and services that are used by a high percentage of the employee population. Time and effort are not wasted convincing/coercing employees to use products purchased as part of a large IT initiative, but largely rejected by employees. Congdon summarizes this approach by saying that “associates pick ideas and IT listens.”

IT is now freer to explore new areas where technology can help move the business forward. Today, one area includes providing employees with mobile access to product information from all platforms, so they can make decisions quickly and effectively. Another area of focus is unified communications (UC), like integrated text, video and voice collaboration, where IT can offer solutions so employees can collaborate transparently across continents and time zones.

The new roles for the CIO and IT work well at Red Hat, where many of the employees are engineers and can deal with the complexity of office and networking technologies. But as cloud services and mobile devices become more commoditized and online social dynamics become more stable, I believe this model will work well for most organizations in the future. Namely, the role of the CIO will become more of a strategic advisor and IT will become a critical facilitator for business solutions rather than a supplier of corporate IT plumbing services.

What do you think? Was Thomas Jefferson right when he said, “A little rebellion is a good thing,” or will CIOs and IT departments wither away as employees increasingly learn to be technologically self-sufficient?

Title image courtesy of Adchariyaphoto (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Interested in reading more by David? See his 2013 Predictions: The Changing Needs of the Mobile, Social Business