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In an era where technology belongs to everyone, not just IT, Dennis Hodges sees big opportunity for the CIO profession.

Recently, I was given the chance to review an excerpt from Martha Heller’s forthcoming book, Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT. In the introduction to the book, Martha poses a number of thought provoking questions about the modern technology organization, and its leadership. One of them has been on my mind a lot since I read it: “When technology all of a sudden belongs to everyone, what does that mean for IT?”

I’ve been around technology for the past thirty years, and I must say the past ten years have been the most enjoyable. Major advances have made IT an integral part of the business and part of people’s everyday lives--not something on the disconnected periphery like the old Apple Newton. The cloud, smartphones, and much better application technology has leveled the playing field for all organizations, large and small, and has opened the door for almost anyone to bring up a service – regardless of the department they are in.

The Opportunity in ‘Technology Everywhere’

Now, many of the naysayers including the famous Nicholas Carr, with his views on whether IT matters, have made some IT folks run for the hills and dig in for the “inevitable” dismantling of the world around them. Others see a very freeing opportunity with these changes – I fall into the latter category.

As technology executives, while we can’t always say “yes”, we don’t always have to say “no”. IT needs to get out in front of the discussion – not be an order taker or roadblock. Pick the battles that matter and then get out of the way for others. Otherwise, you will be forced to dig in and battle – and you will lose.

So, where does IT fit in the new environment?

Skate to Where the Business is Going

First, look at what’s important to your business. Identify those things that will bring economic and business value to the organization. In other words, develop a strategy that is business enabling and technology focused. Do not just identify the hardware and software components even though that is often more comfortable to the technical enterprise architect. A great technical vision that misses the mark for supporting the overall business plan is a failed vision. Be like Wayne Gretsky – don’t skate to where the puck is, skate to where the puck is going. In other words, don’t design your plan around the company as it stands, plan for the future – a dark, murky place for many.

You can do this by deliberately involving your business partners. Even if you think you know the right way to go, to get people on board with your idea. As a profession, we’ve developed a reputation for not consulting the organization, using as an excuse the very complicated nature of large legacy systems. Many people who have lived through this from the business side resent the fact that they weren’t consulted. Business people who are technically savvy, regardless of age, consider their votes at least as important as the IT vote. Since technology now belongs to everyone, we have to bring that into our thinking.

Next, free yourself of every possible legacy system and anything that holds the company and the IT group back from re-inventing itself constantly. Too many IT organizations build their support plan around what they have in place and end up with very high “run rate as a percent of IT spend”. If all you are doing is feeding the beast, you usually won’t have the funds to innovate.

I have shrunk my companies’ data center footprint from 5,000 square meters thirty years ago to a small caged area in a colocation facility in Michigan and some rented compute services in Europe. You can’t go from 0-60 with a trailer load of legacy hardware and software connected to you.

Drive Business Skills throughout the IT Team

Along with freeing yourself from legacy systems, you must develop business acumen into your IT organization. This goes for more than the business analyst and must be driven down into the technical team as well.

Our server support staff must now deal with hosted compute services and cloud infrastructures such as Amazon’s AWS and Microsoft’s Azure. The capabilities required to troubleshoot problems grows exponentially when the backplane is across the internet. We must also learn to globalize our efforts and see things and services from multiple perspectives. Not only are our systems required to be available everywhere, all the time, we have to adapt our support style to meet a changing world’s expectations for describing problems and providing information.

So what does “Power to the People and Long Live the King” actually mean? It really does reflect the changing landscape of technology. If CIOs and their teams can focus on heading to where the business is going rather than where it is, there is no reason for the IT organization to become irrelevant. In fact, if looked as a critical part of the business and a contributor to process and organizational effectiveness, the people can have what they want and you can keep your job – and continue to see your relevance and responsibility increase.

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