It’s interesting to me that many IT organisations that I speak to now have started to realise that “infrastructure” may no longer be king.
If I think about the projects and strategies that I was working on 5 or so years ago, almost all project focus (time, effort and money) was directed specifically at IT “plumbing”…. “We need to implement archiving, let’s buy some storage and a bit of software”, “our business is asking for highly available systems, let go build a second datacenter”.
One of my favourite IT books of the past decade and one that many will remember was, “Does IT Matter?” by Nicholas Carr (here). This thought provoking (and seemingly controversial) work discussed the idea that, in all industries, infrastructure eventually becomes ubiquitous and commoditised and that when this happens, a business can no longer rely on that infrastructure to differentiate itself from its competitors.
The analogy that stays with me here uses the steam railway systems of the Victorian era in England..
There was a time, soon after the invention of the steam locomotive, that a few businesses in the England were able to compete very aggressively and win huge market share due to the fact that they had invested to lay their own railway tracks on which to carry goods and quicken their supply and delivery chains. Of course, after a time, the railway system exploded as a result of the industrial revolution. The railway tracks became almost ubiquitous and EVERY business had access to this revolutionary mode of transportation.. In other words, NOBODY could use it for competitive advantage.
Back to IT today. I believe that Nicholas Carr’s predictions of 2004 have played out over the past few years. Every week, I see new IT projects die through lack of interest from the business because they were “infrastructure focused”…. “But what does this investment MEAN to the business?” the board of directors ask. “It’s hard to quantify, exactly”, replies the IT executive.
The emergence of Cloud computing, of course, serves to demonstrate and fuel this dynamic. “Well, perhaps this infrastructure stuff has become such that we should not even own any !” being the logical conclusion to this IT trend.
So, what’s the lesson here ? Well, I’ve been talking to IT executives recently about the concept of creating “I-Centric” strategies. These are strategies for information service delivery that put INFORMATION (“I” – information) and PEOPLE (“I” – me) at their center. I believe that, only with an early focus on the business of connecting people and information to differentiate a business, will we create IT solutions that a truly interesting to the board of directors.
Instead of, “We need to implement archiving, let’s buy some storage and a bit of software”, maybe start with, “What regulatory framework do we need to comply with ? What information needs elevated protection ? What does it mean if somebody access this archive from a mobile device outside of our national borders? What impact will an implemented version of this have on the bottom line”…
Of course, strategies like this don’t come easy. They also don’t start with infrastructure planning. They should start (like so many things) with thorough planning and governance. Importantly for IT, I think, they should also start with a close partnership between the business and IT. Get the objectives agreed in detail, plan exhaustively, create policies and governance systems that align to the risk and compliance landscape and the technology phase will come easy. That's the theory, anyway.
Otherwise, we are just laying more railway tracks…..