Earlier this year, movie fans cheered the arrival of “Back to the Future” day, a reference to the second installment in the series when characters Marty McFly and Doc Brown travelled 30 years ahead to the (then) futuristic date of Oct. 21, 2015. “Back to the Future” day's arrival was a trending topic on Twitter, took over the cover of USA Today, and was celebrated on just about every prime-time network talk show. It was nothing short of a cultural phenomenon, and reminded us that our fascination with the future is stronger than ever.

That fascination is not limited to the big screen, either. The future comes up all the time in my discussions with companies. No matter what they’re doing today, organizations are always thinking about the future. And most of the time, they’re all asking a variation of the same question: What can we do to better prepare ourselves for the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead?

We vendor types are fond of referring to this concept as future-proofing, a reference to the steps that organizations can take to better position themselves for what lies ahead. Future proofing is not a new concept by any stretch, but it’s nonetheless fraught with misconceptions. Make no mistake, ensuring that your organization is prepared for the future is and always will be a critical part of any smart IT strategy, especially in today’s fast-moving, data-driven world. Like anything else though, there’s a right and wrong way to go about it.

No Silver Bullet

Let’s start by discussing how not to go about future-proofing your business. First and foremost, if you’re searching for a silver bullet of any kind, you can give up the search right now. There’s no one-step strategy — like moving everything to the cloud, for example — that does the trick on its own. 

And no matter what anyone tells you, there’s no singular product (or product category) that by itself ensures you’ll be ready for the future. More on this later, but preparing for the future is about investing in the right mix of modern capabilities across a number of areas, such as data management, data integration, data discovery and analytics, and backup and recovery, to name just a few. It’s never about any single tool or technology.

Preparing for the future is also not about getting caught up in or over-rotating on any single trend, no matter how hyped up it may be. Big data alone is not the future of IT, and standing up a Hadoop cluster does not future-proof your business. The same can be said of cloud, IoT, mobility, or any other mega-trend. The future isn’t about any one of these trends. It’s about all of these trends, and preparing for it requires a holistic, end-to-end strategy.

It’s not all bad news. There are many good, smart ways to future-proof your business. Be forewarned, though. If you’re looking for bold recommendations, you’ll have to look elsewhere. One of the biggest misconceptions out there is that preparing for tomorrow requires wholesale changes to everything about your IT strategy. That’s simply not the case. The simple and seemingly obvious is often all it takes.

Start with Software

This may not be the splashiest advice you’ll ever hear, but starting with software is a strategy that many have lost sight of in the era of SaaS delivery models. Investing in modern software technology across key areas such as data and database management, data replication and integration, data analytics, and backup and disaster recovery allows you to better leverage the investments you’ve already made (and will eventually make) in modern infrastructure.

More importantly, the right software enables flexibility and agility. As much as anything, future proofing is about protecting your business from unexpected changes beyond the control of your organization. When you have the flexibility to expand, contract, scale and reallocate in the face of rapid change — flexibility that the right software investments can provide — you’re prepared for whatever the future holds.

But there’s another reason why I advise organizations to prioritize the right software investments — and that’s the connection between your software and your staff. Investing in the right software keeps indispensable folks such as your DBAs, data analysts and backup admins happy, and happy employees are loyal employees. As competitive as the environment for IT talent is today, that’s no small benefit, and no small part of insulating your company against future disruption.

Invest in People

While we’re talking about your human capital, remember that you future proof with people first and technology second. If you’re looking to safeguard against future change, the best way to do so is with a staff that’s engaged, motivated and continually growing. 

It’s far easier to combat new and unforeseen data protection challenges if you have a great backup admin who has grown with the company. It’s far easier to deal with an increasingly complex data landscape if you have trained, multilingual DBAs. And it’ll be far easier to address the projected shortfall in data scientists and remain on the cutting edge of analytics if you invest in things like training and internships in order to cultivate those experts from within. 

Having the right people, combined with the right systems, allows companies to capture and retain the institutional knowledge that’s a critical part of learning from past mistakes to prevent future ones.

Embrace Data Complexity

The data landscape is complex. It’s complex today. It’ll be complex tomorrow. Stop fighting it and start embracing it. 

If we’re to succeed, we need to shift away from the mindset that data complexity is something to be feared. Complexity isn’t the problem. The problem is that we too often lack the openness and flexibility needed to manage it. We invest in people and technologies that can hold their own — perhaps even thrive — within the confines of a single platform, but that struggle to manage data beyond that platform. What’s needed is the flexibility and agility to connect to, share and analyze data across multiple platforms.

A Connected Process

If you haven’t noticed, there’s connective tissue linking all three of the best practices outlined above — and that’s no accident. There may be no silver bullet, but future-proofing your IT is nonetheless a connected, holistic endeavor. Bring together the right mix of people, technology and processes, and you’ll be ready to meet the challenges of tomorrow head on. No DeLorean needed.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  Title image by Lee J Haywood