The IT departments many of us work in today (either as an employee or consultant) are often the result of thirty or more years of diligent labour. These departments are designed, optimised even, to create IT estates populated with large, expensive applications. Unfortunately these departments are also looking a lot like dinosaurs: large, slow and altogether unsuited for the the new normal. The challenge is to reconfigure our departments, transforming them from asset management functions into business (or business-technology) optimisation engines. This transformation should be a keen interest for all of us, as it’s going to drive a dramatic change in staffing profiles which will, in turn, effect our own jobs in the no so distant future.
Delivering large IT solutions is a tricky business. They’re big. They’re expensive. And the projects to create them go off the rails more often than we’d like to admit. IT departments have been built to minimise the risks associated with delivering and operating these applications. This means governance, and usually quite a lot of it. Departments which started off as small scale engineering functions soon picked up an administrative layer responsible to the mechanics of governance.
More recently we’ve been confronted with the challenge with managing the dependancies and interactions between IT applications. Initiatives like straight-through processing require us to take a holistic, rather than a pieces-parts, approach, and we’re all dealing with the problem of having one of each application or middleware product, as well as a few we brewed in the back room ourselves. Planning the operation and evolution of the IT estate became more important, and we picked up an enterprise architecture capability to manage the evolution of our IT estate.
It’s common to visualise these various departmental functions and roles as a triangle (or a pyramid, if you prefer). At the bottom we have engineering: the developers and other technical personnel who do the actual work to build and maintain our applications. Next layer up is governance, the project and operational administrators who schedule the work and check that it’s done to spec. Second from the top are the planners, the architects responsible for shaping the work to be done as well as acting as design authority. Capping of the triangle (or pyramid) is the IT leadership team who decide what should be done.
While specific techniques and technologies might come and go, the overall composition of the triangle has remained the same. From the sixties and seventies through to even quite recently, we’ve staffed our IT departments with many technical doers, a few less administrators, a smaller planning team, and a small IT leadership group. The career path for most of us been a progression from the bottom layers – when we were fresh out of school – to the highest point in the triangle that we can manage.
The emergence of off-shore and outsourcing put a spanner in the works. We all understand the rational: migrate the more junior positions – the positions with the least direct (if any) contact with the business proper – to a cheaper country. Many companies under intense cost pressure broke the triangle in two, keeping the upper planning and decision roles, while pushing the majority of the manage and all the do roles out of the country, or even out of the company.
Ignoring whether or not this drive to externalise the lower roles provided the expected savings or not, what it did do is break the career ladder for IT staff. Where does you next generation of senior IT personnel come from if you’ve pushed the lower ranks out of the business? Many companies found themselves with an awkward skills shortage a few years into an outsourcing / off-shore arrangement, as they were no longer able to train or promote senior personnel to replace those who were leaving through natural attrition.
The solution to this was to change how we brake-up the skills triangle; rather than a simple horizontal cut, we took a slice down the side. Retaining a portion of all skills in-house allows companies provide a career path and on the job training for their staff.
Many companies have tweaked this model, adding a bulge in the middle to provide a large enough resource pool to manage both internal projects, as well as those run by out-sourced and off-shore resources.
This model is now common in a lot of large companies, and it has served us well. However, the world has a funny habit of changing just when you’ve everything working smoothly.
The recent global financial criss has fundamentally changed the business landscape. We are experiencing not merely another turn of the business cycle, but a restructuring of the economic order. Many are even talking about the emergence of a new normal. The impact this will have on how we run our businesses (and our IT departments) is still being discussed, but we can see the outline of this impact already.
Companies are becoming more focused, while leaning more heavily on partners and services companies (BPO, out-sourcers, consultants, and so on) to cover those areas of the business they don’t want to focus on. We can see this from the global companies who have effectively moved to a franchise model, though to the small end of town where startups are using on-line services such as Amazon S3, rather than building internal capabilities. While this trend might have initially started as a cost saving, most of the benefit is in management time saved, which can then be used to focus on more important issues. We’re all finding that the limiting factor in our business is management time, so being able to hand off the management of less important tasks can help provide that edge you need.
We’re also seeing faster business change: what used to take years now takes months, or even weeks. The constant value-chain optimisation we’ve been working on since the 70s has finally cumulated in product and regulatory life-cycles that change faster than we can keep up. Nowhere is this more evident than the regulated industries (finance, utilities …), where updates in government regulation has changed from a generational to a quarterly occurrence as governments attempt to use regulation change to steer the economic boat.
Money is also becoming (or has become) more expensive, causing companies and deals to operate with less leverage. This means that there is less capital available for major projects, pushing companies to favour renting over buying, as well as creating a preference for smaller, incremental change over the major business transformation of the past.
And finally, companies are starting to take a truly global outlook and operate as one cohesive business across the globe, rather than as a family of cloned business who operate more-or-less independently in each region.
We can draw a few general conclusions on the potential impact on IT departments of these trends.
The increase reliance on partners, the broader partner ecosystem this implies, and an increasingly global approach to business will create more complex operational environments, increasing the importance of planning the IT estate and steering a company’s IT in the right direction.
The need to reduce leverage, and free up working capital, is pushing companies toward BPO and SaaS solutions, rather than the traditional on-premisses solutions, where the solution provider is paid per-seat, or might even be only paid a success fee.
The need for rapid project turn-around is pushing us toward running large portfolios of small projects, rather than a small number of large projects.
A lot of the admin work we used to do is now baked into web delivered solutions (BaseCamp et al).
This will trigger us to break up a the skills triangle in a different way.
While we’ll still take a slice down the side of the triangle, the buldge will move to the ends of the slice, giving it a skinny waist. The more complex operational environment means that we need to beef up planning (though we don’t want to get all dogmatic about our approach, as existing asset-centric IT planning methodologies won’t work in the new normal). A shift to large numbers of small projects (where the projects are potentially more technically complex) means that we’ll beef up our internal delivery capability, providing team leads with more autonomy. The move to smaller projects also means that we can reduce our administration and governance overhead.
And finally, our suppliers act as a layer through the middle, a flex resource for us to call on. They can also provide us with a broader, cross-industry view, of how to best leverage technology.
This thinning out of the middle ranks is part of a trend we’re seeing elsewhere. Web2.0/E2.0/et al are causing organisations to remove knowledge workers — the traditional white collar middle layers of the organisaiton – leaving companies with a strategy/leadership group and task workers.
Does location matter? Or, put another way, is the world no longer flat? Many cloud and SaaS providers work under the assumption that where we store data where it is most efficient from an application performance point of view, ignoring political considerations. This runs counter to many company and governments who care greatly where their data is stored. Have we entered a time where location does matter, not for technical reasons, but for political reasons? Is globalisation (as a political thing) finally starting to impact IT architecture and strategy?
Thomas Friedman‘s book, The World is Flat, contained a number of stories which where real eye openers. The one I remember the most was the McDonald’s drive through. The idea was simple: once you’ve removed direct physical contact from the ordering process, then it’s more efficient to accept orders from a contact centre than from within the restaurant itself. We could event locate that contact centre in a cheaper geography such as another state, or even another country.
Telecommunications made the world flat, as cheap telecommunications allows us to locate work wherever it is cheapest. The opportunity for labour arbitrage this created drove offshoring through the late nineties and into the new millenium. Everything from call centres to tax returns and medical image diagnosis started to migrate to cheaper geographies. Competition to be the cheapest and most efficient service provider, rather than location, determines who does the work. The entire world would compete on a level playing field.
In the background, whilst this was happening, enterprise applications went from common to ubiquitous. Adoption was driven by the productivity benefits the applications brought, which started of as a source of differentiation, but has now become one of the many requirements of being in business. SaaS and cloud are the most recent step in this evolution, leveraging the global market to create solutions operating at such a massive scale that they can provide price points and service levels which are hard, if not impossible, for most companies to achieve internally.
Where we store our assets is important. Organisations want to put their assets somewhere safe, because without assets these the organisations don’t amount to much. Companies want to keep their information — their confidential trade secrets — hidden from prying eyes. Governments need to ensure they have the trust of their citizens by respecting their privacy. (Not to mention the skullduggery this is international relations.) While communications technology has made it incredibly easy to move this information around and keep it secure, it has yet to solve the political problem of ensuring that we can trust the people responsible for safeguarding our assets. And all these applications we have created — both the traditional on-premesis, hosted or SaaS and cloud versions — are really just asset management tools.
We’re reached a point where one of the a larger hidden assumptions of enterprise applications has been exposed. Each application was designed to live and operate within a single organisation. This organisation might be a company, or it might be a country, or it might be some combination of the two. The application you select to manage your data determines the political boundary it lives within. If you use any U.S. SaaS or cloud solution provider to manage your data, then your data falls under U.S. judicial discovery laws, irregardless of where you yourself are located. If your data transits through the U.S., then assume that the U.S. government has a copy. The world might be flat, but where you store your assets and where you send them still matters.
We can already see some moves by the vendors to address this problem. Microsoft, for example, has developed a dedicated cloud for the U.S. government, known as BPOS Federal, which is designed to meet the government’s stringent security and privacy standards. Amazon has also taken a portion of the cloud it runs and dedicated it to, and located it in, the EU, for similar reasons.
If we consider enterprise applications to be asset management tools rather than productivity tools, then ideas like private clouds start to make a lot of sense. Cloud technology reifies a lot of the knowledge required to configure and manage a virtualised environment in software, eliminating the data centre voodoo and empowering the development teams to manage the solutions themselves. This makes cloud technology simply a better asset management tool, but we need to freedom to locate the data (and therefore the application) where it makes the most sense from an asset management point of view. Sometimes this might imply a large, location agnostic, public cloud. Other times it might require a much smaller private cloud located within a specific political boundary. (And the need to prevent some data even transiting through a few specific geographies – requiring us to move the code to the data, rather than the data to the code – might be the killer application that mobile agents have been waiting for.)
What we really need are meta-clouds: clouds created by aggregating a number of different clouds, just as the Internet is a network of separate networks. While the clouds would all be technically similar, each would be located in a different political geography. This might be inside vs. outside the organisation, or in different states, or even different countries. The data would be stored and maintained where it made the most sense from an asset management point of view, with few technical considerations, the meta-cloud providing a consistent approach to locating and moving our assets within and across individual clouds as we see fit.