Can the IT department survive Web 2.0?

Risk-averse IT departments that are too cautious in their approach to Web 2.0 technologies such as social networking, online applications and cloud computing could be signing their own death warrants.

Risk-averse IT departments that are too cautious in their approach to Web 2.0 technologies such as social networking, online applications and cloud computing could be signing their own death warrants.

According to business author, lecturer and consultant Peter Hinssen, IT functions that ignore or try to prevent employees using such tools are stifling their businesses' ability to innovate and compete. "Web 2.0 is really about constant innovation and constant change. Its impact is going to be tremendous. The worst thing you can do is think this stuff is just for Generation Y. It is going to be a way of life for all of us," says Hinssen.

For a start, Web 2.0 forces companies to think beyond the enterprise. Opening corporate IT to wider networks of partners, suppliers and the public opens all manner of new business models and opportunities.

"That is a really good idea because businesses and IT departments have been staring at their bellybuttons for too long," he says. "I think the concept of the corporate mashup - ad-hoc collaborations between different parties for mutual gain - will be particularly powerful."

Web 2.0 and cultural change

Some leading companies are embracing these technologies in the right way, but only where they have successfully changed their culture, says Hinssen.

"Proctor & Gamble, for instance, has a concept of open innovation that is fundamental to its way of working and fits well with the Web 2.0 world. And because it has done the cultural transformation already, fusing IT and the business, it is much more capable of realising the potential of these technologies. Unfortunately, I see very few IT departments doing that."

Web 2.0 also offers opportunities to innovate at relatively low cost. "You can implement ideas very quickly, see what works and amplify those that do. At a time when there is huge pressure on costs coupled with a need to be agile and innovative, Web 2.0, if used cleverly by the IT department, can really help," says Hinssen.

"People are going to get used to these technologies extremely quickly. Nothing ages faster than the web. I think IT is going to be hit really hard, for example, when people start using the next generation of Google applications at home, then have to go back into the office and work on an SAP screen that looks like it was designed in the 1970s. If the department is to survive, IT has to be at the cutting edge, or at least up to the bar in terms of what is going on."

CIO in hot water

Hinssen recounts the story of a recent lunch he had with a CIO from a large Belgian company. During the meal, the CIO received an angry call from his CEO who had e-mailed a presentation from home to his Google Mail address (it was too big for the corporate inbox). "The CEO was having a problem accessing his Gmail account at work and the CIO had to tell him access had been blocked on the corporate system. I could hear the CEO shouting through the phone receiver from the other side of the table and it wasn't pretty.

"When the CEO of one of the biggest companies in Belgium almost fires the CIO on the spot because he can't access his Gmail, it is a clear sign that these types of technology are gaining a broader foothold in business than simply Generation Y."

So why aren't more IT departments embracing the technology? Hinssen believes a major factor is the rise of what he calls "governance thinking" in IT.

"A lot of IT departments are using governance and security as a shield, so if anything goes wrong they cannot be held liable," he says. "It is stupid. There is plenty you can do within 'safe' boundaries. If you say you must wait until a technology is completely mature, that means businesses shouldn't have done SOA, ERP, CRM the list goes on.

"What IT needs right now isn't people who focus on what could happen if things go wrong, but people who think about the possibilities if things go right."

Will Google's Wave engulf you? 

When Google announced its integrated online communication and collaboration platform at the end of May, it put another nail in the coffin of those IT departments intent on resisting the Web 2.0. wave.

Google Wave has been designed to aggregate and organise in real time instant messages, e-mails, blog conversations, social network feeds and other information from multiple sources into easy-to-manage, multi-threaded conversations it calls "waves".

As the company points out, the predominant form of digital communication used in business, e-mail, was invented over 40 years ago and is woefully clumsy and constricting for the way today's businesses work.

Essentially, Google's new platform provides a way to interact with information and conversations that could dramatically facilitate collaboration, improve communication and speed up work processes.

Crucially, Google is driving hard to make Wave an open, standard protocol. It has open-sourced the bulk of the code (meaning companies can build and host their own private Wave servers), as well as providing open application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow developers to extend the platform further or integrate it with other systems.

With the weight of the mighty Google behind it and a huge buzz of excitement already pervading social networks, websites and the blogosphere, Wave has considerable momentum and could be just the push many businesses need to take Web 2.0 seriously. The question is, will IT departments be poised to surf the wave, or be drowned under it?

Wrong type of fear

Indeed, worrying whether a technology is secure, reliable or mature enough is the wrong type of fear, Hinssen believes. "IT departments should be much more worried about being put out of the picture," he says. And if IT fails to grasp the opportunities of Web 2.0, many businesses will simply subvert or sideline the function, he warns.

"For example, the marketing department of one large pharmaceutical company asked IT for a fancy Web 2.0 collaboration environment and was told it was on the roadmap, but would not be in place for another 23 months. So the marketing people, who needed the tool the following week, used an open web platform instead. Soon, they were sharing confidential drug discovery pipeline information between Asia, Europe and the US on hundreds of these collaborative platforms. And IT had no idea this was going on.

"Of course, that is totally unacceptable. But if IT wants to get some control over the use of Web 2.0, it is going to have to be ahead of the business in terms of its use. Otherwise the gap between business and IT is only going to widen," he says.

"If that happens, eventually IT will degrade to a completely operational role and will probably be outsourced. If you want to keep IT in-house - as I think most companies should - you have to put innovation capability inside the department and attract people with the right skills."

Future of the IT function

In his book, Business/IT Fusion, Hinssen outlines his vision of an IT function that is much more closely merged with the rest of the business, as well as setting out how he proposes companies get there.

"We need a nimbler kind of IT - less technical, more business-focused, more about innovation than execution. That will require different people to those we generally see in IT today. Too many firms still have deeply technical, seemingly semi-autistic nerds in the IT department. We are going to have to find or develop people who are more broad-minded, more generalist, more innovative and more forward-looking," he says.

"Web 2.0 isn't some passing fad, it is the beginning of a continuous flow of opportunities. The IT department needs to be a permanent observatory that is always on the lookout for how we can use technological innovation - and for that we need a different team," he says.

And for those who think all this still sounds too radical, Hinssen echoes the words of US army chief General Eric Shinseki: "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less."

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