How the IT department can go from zeroes to heroes

January 16, 2011: 9:41 AM ET
Image representing Aaron Levie as depicted in ...

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With the rise of cloud and social, it's time for the IT department to change the way they work -- and become company heroes.

By Aaron Levie, contributor

On a daily basis, a select group of individuals are making technology decisions on behalf of their entire organization. They're implementing services to solve real business problems, sometimes under the guidance of their IT department, but most often on their own. For the first time, the power of technology decision-making is in the hands of those who will be using the solutions deployed. These are the managers, project leaders and knowledge workers responsible for getting work done - not just the IT administrators managing implementation or the executives writing the checks. This is truly a revolution in the enterprise, unlike any we've seen before.

This shift poses a major challenge for today's enterprises: how can we let technology run rampant through our organizations, technology that is fundamentally improving business outcomes, while still maintaining some semblance of a coherent IT strategy? It also creates a massive hurdle for legacy software vendors, who traditionally have only cared about one customer - the person buying and implementing their services - with little thought for the end user.

In a recent Techcrunch post, Ben Horowitz argued that not much has changed - the "new boss" is actually the same as the "old boss," and for IT solutions to succeed in the enterprise they still have to be sold to the CIO or C-suite. You can't bypass the CIO forever simply in favor of adoption on the front lines. While Ben's thesis is directionally accurate in that budget and oversight will always be controlled by those at the top, the point that is often overlooked is that adoption is now fundamentally different from buying. In prior decades, this distinction did not exist. Buying and adoption were, for all intents and purposes, synonymous. And adoption was something that happened grudgingly, after technology had already been forced on employees from the top-down.

When end user adoption precedes buying, it happens with purpose and even excitement. Users now have a much greater say in what technology they use, so much so that it's massively disruptive to the organization itself. There's simply no way that IT administrators can get their proverbial arms around all the tools and services that individuals are bringing into the enterprise. Box.net is an example of the type of tool deployed in "Shadow IT," implemented by end users to address a certain pain point, spreading virally throughout project teams and departments. It finally hits the radar of the IT Director or CIO, who at this point has two options: sanction the tool in its current use and evaluate it for broader deployment; or block it, risking a productivity drop and associated business consequences. Companies like T-Mobile, TaylorMade and Hawaiian Airlines have gone the former direction, but many others have taken the latter route, opting to stick with existing IT protocol and maintain tight control through on-premise systems.

These are the options that every IT organization is facing today and will continue to face in the coming years. The adoption-buying split is broadening the disconnect between the roles and desires of end users and IT departments; such a disconnect cannot be sustained without negatively affecting business operations.

Diametrically opposed goals

If you enumerated the goals of the IT department today, they would look something like this: implement the fewest solutions to solve the greatest number of problems, maintain complete control over technology and information, answer to expectations around cost and risk, deploy proven solutions. These are fundamentally at odds with the correlated goals of users: use best-of-breed technology to solve problems, gain complete mobility and flexibility, answer to the productivity expectations of their manager(s), move quickly by using the fastest, most intuitive new tools. Although contradictory, both sets of goals make perfect sense. IT should be responsible for information security. Knowledge workers must be asked to move quickly and stay productive.

So how do we reconcile these seemingly disparate but equally valid needs? Andrew McAfee recently suggested a methodology for managing enterprise software implementation: "...exercise tight control over technology choice, and as little as possible over technology use. Tight control over technology choice ensures that a big organization doesn't wind up with hundreds of disjointed deployment efforts and fragmented technology environments."

This will leave IT with a more stable technology strategy, yet most enterprises already employ tight control over choice, and it's not serving users very well. We must take into account the various users that need these tools to be productive. And as with many things in life, opting for compromise means that most everyone loses. In the interest of reducing the number of systems that need to be managed, companies may end up with the market's least flexible CRM solution. Or perhaps they'll buy a collaboration solution from the same vendor that provides them with networking gear. In both cases, IT wins in manageability in the short term, but users are likely to suffer usability and productivity losses - which means that ultimately, IT will have to become deeply involved in the "technology use" stage as well, providing user training, finding workarounds for lacking functionality, and taking complaints.

Buying based on existing supplier relationships and system consistency -- and avoiding a little chaos and user testing -- is at the root cause of the problem with enterprise technology today: slow, awkward, and unloved by users. The challenge for the next ten years is to create and implement technology that supports the paradoxically different needs of both users and IT departments. We must re-build our enterprises in such a way that there's a connection between our IT vision and what we're demanding of employees. Enter the cloud.

The Cloud changes everything. Really.

By democratizing adoption, the cloud changes everything about enterprise IT. It's now the sales manager that implements Salesforce.com (CRM) for her team. It's the developer that brings Amazon S3 (AMZN) into his toolkit. It's the support representative that selects Zendesk as the simplest solution for her customer service team. As a recent Forrester report noted, "Espcially in firms where IT is seen as plodding and cumbersome to work with, the new price points and preprovisioning of SaaS and cloud will foster renegade buying by the business." Like it or not, users now control the mindshare of their company's IT strategy, and enterprise vendors must begin to build tools that are meant to be used, not just meant to be sold. And this is why startups are inherently disruptive in new markets. They're not beholden to the old business models that represent major profit centers. Starting at a much smaller baseline makes you immune to the risk of cannibalizing past product lines, simply because you have none. And this is why, in just a matter of three to five years, the enterprise technology landscape has changed dramatically. It's also why, in the next three to five years, our corporate IT environments will look remarkably different than they do today.

With enterpise software finally starting to focus on the individual, and not just the IT buyer, we're seeing dramatic changes in business productivity, speed of execution, and overall sentiment towards technology. People are able to work much more quickly, access more information than ever before, and make decisions in real-time that are backed by data -- all leading to a more open, connected and collaborative work environment. With the right solutions, even the IT professionals are happy -- they're finally able to get ahead of the game instead of always having to fight fires, solve problems, and answer to unhappy users. Take Manjit Sighn, CIO of Chaquita Brands, who explained to CIO.com's Thomas Wailgum why he bypassed the entrenched ERP vendors in favor of Workday's on-demand alternative and a more strategically-aligned IT organization: "I want my folks sitting arm in arm with business folks, talking about process transformation and trying to figure out how to bring products to market even quicker...not keeping the lights on running a system."

How everyone wins

When an organization's IT strategy is consistent with what will solve problems for its employees, we'll see the emergence of a more productive, open, and social enterprise. To get here, IT professionals should be doing more "sitting arm in arm with business folks," but this can't happen unless the IT organization is enabled as a strategic group instead of just a technology support center mandated to avoid risk and maintain existing infrastructure. This conservative attitude is the reason that it's safest to go with IBM (IBM) or stay with Microsoft (MSFT) SharePoint, and why innovation in enterprise technology lags behind consumer technology by many years.

It may seem unrealistic to think about IT professionals as the heroes of an organization. They don't belong to the department that makes the most money, or builds the products or services that their company sells. And yet, the IT department fundamentally powers all the activities at the lowest levels of how we operate our business in today's competitive environment. Whether it's end user adopted or company mandated, technology is powering everything we do and informing every decision we make: ERP, CRM, social business software, marketing automation, content management. But despite it's influence, technology has almost never been maximized in the best possible ways, by all the possible parties. That is changing, and quickly. To do this, of course, software vendors have to put much more effort than ever before into building solutions that don't fail their customers and delight rather than block users.  We're getting there.  We've seen more progress made in moving towards a more user-centric IT strategy in the last year than in the previous ten years, and this revolution will continue to gain momentum - and attention - in 2011.

--Aaron Levie is the CEO and co-founder of Box.net.

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