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Control or shift – channel’s role in the move to business-led IT

What impact could the shift to business-led IT have on channel partners’ role with customers and the relationships they have grown and developed within customer organisations?

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Many organisations are seeking to capitalise on the value of business-led IT by enabling technology to be implemented and managed outside the IT department as shadow IT and cloud-based computing becomes more widely adopted. A recent CIO survey by Harvey Nash/KPMG reported that almost 63% of organisations allowed business-managed IT investment and about one in 10 encouraged it.

According to the survey, organisations that formally involved the IT team in business-led IT decisions experienced improved time to market for new products and better employee experience. Conversely, the survey also found a significant risk if the IT team was not involved in decision-making around business-led IT, particularly in terms of security.

The 43% of organisations that did not directly involve the CIO or IT in business IT investment decisions were twice as likely to have multiple security levels exposed and to become a victim of a major cyber attack.

So what can channel partners do to ensure organisations gain the benefits of business-led IT while maintaining the level of oversight associated with the IT team? More seriously, what impact could this shift have on their role with customers and the relationships they have grown and developed within customer organisations?

Business-led IT is often referred to by the more dramatic term of “shadow IT”. In reality, it is something that has emerged as the software-as-a-service (SaaS) and cloud-computing models have become increasingly mainstream. As Simon Wilson, CTO, UK & Ireland, at HPE Aruba puts it: “The market has made it easier for shadow IT to exist by offering SaaS and PaaS [platform-as-a-service] solutions you can pay for on a credit card.”

Unsurprisingly, lines of business (LOBs) have adopted shadow IT with enthusiasm. “For the LOB, this is great news,” says Wilson. “As long as someone is prepared to sign off the expense, they are in charge of their own destiny to choose the platform they want and get it when they want.” Who could argue with that?

And it’s not as if many of them don’t have good cause to look beyond the IT team for their technology. “The shadow IT problem really exists because central IT teams are unable to say yes or react fast enough to LOB requests,” says Wilson. Although there are legitimate reasons for the tardiness of IT departments, such as security and governance, the fact is that “many existing IT networks, services and solutions are just not as agile as they need to be”, he says.

Wilson adds: “Many LOBs don’t want shadow IT at all. Those that implement it often do so as a last resort, forced upon them because central IT either doesn’t offer the services they need or can’t react quickly enough.”

Finding better solutions

But might it also be that they are finding better solutions – at least on the surface – than the IT department is prepared to deliver? Jason Chester, director of global channel programmes at Infinity QS, reckons non-IT managers and leaders “are becoming increasingly tech-savvy and confident in their use of IT, as well as appreciative of its business value”.

SaaS and cloud computing are providing them with the ability to access “a vast array of solutions at the click of a mouse – or finger on an iPad – often without the consent or even knowledge of their IT department”, he says.

In those circumstances, who wouldn’t be tempted? “Trying to prevent that from happening is futile and will restrict progress,” says Chester. 
“IT should not fight to retain ‘control’ as in the past. Instead, organisations need to foster a positive culture of collaboration between IT and their business counterparts.”

IT would provide governance of decisions to ensure appropriate data security, regulatory compliance, business continuity and resilience, says Chester. “It is no longer ‘us and them’, but rather an evolving symbiosis between the different groups,” he adds.

Ben Griffin, business development manager at Computer Disposals, says organisations need to recognise that “the business-led route is ultimately for the good of the whole company”. He adds: “Business strategy isn’t driven by tech alone; IT, much like HR and retail, is merely one function of an entire organisation. If you look at IT in a vacuum, as something separate from the rest of the business, it is difficult to connect what you are doing with the company’s objectives.”

“Organisations need to foster a positive culture of collaboration between IT and their business counterparts”
Jason Chester, Infinity QS

And Chris Hykin, technical services director at Stone Group, says it is clear that technology is no longer the sole domain of the IT department. As the pace of change needed to compete in the market accelerates, six-month complex change management projects are not an option for companies wanting to stay solvent, he says.

“The role of the IT department must evolve from being a bastion of control over every blinking light in the business to a foundation service, providing a platform upon which individual departments or business units have jurisdiction to innovate and implement requirements quickly, within pre-defined boundaries,” says Hykin.

There is an obvious temptation for channel partners here as shadow IT opens up IT procurement decisions to LOBs beyond the straitjacket of the IT department. True, their longstanding established relationship with the IT team counts for something, but sometimes it can be liberating to deal with the business instead.

There is a very real prospect of partners being able to engage in a conversation with customers that is not dominated by the looming presence of the vendors they have represented for years to the IT department – as long as they are capable of having that conversation, of course.

As Sean Sears, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) managing director at Park Place Technologies, puts it, it can often be much easier for channel partners “to sell solutions to business stakeholders, who tend to be less aware of or less able to probe on such issues as platform security, availability/SLAs [service-level agreements], implementation stack, supportability and hosting, to name just a few potential concerns”.

Very different conversation

That is a very different conversation from the traditional dialogue between a partner and the IT team. “A less technical sales representative within the channel can rapidly communicate the features and benefits of a particular product to a line-of-business leader without needing to involve additional engineering/technical resources,” says Sears. No wonder this can often seem to be “the obvious best case scenario for the channel”.

LOBs can often be much happier with this approach as well because they understand the strategic mission and needs of their team and have a better grasp of how a solution meets the objectives for what they are trying to achieve. The outcome is often “a favourable customer experience with the application, software, or solution they select”, says Sears.

But there are dangers. “Selling to the business side may be easier from the channel perspective, but this represents only short-term thinking,” he warns. If LOBs encounter unforeseen problems later with security, integration, lack of features, limited availability, support costs, and so on – “issues IT might have raised and helped resolve at the outset” – they might be “reluctant to offer return business, tap upgrade and add-on options, recommend the solution to other companies, or generate the positive online buzz common from happy customers”, says Sears. 

Rani Johnson, CIO at SolarWinds, agrees there is an “element of risk” to shadow IT, but says organisations should not try to halt it entirely. “Not only would this alienate employees, it would starve organisations of the benefits that business-led IT offers,” she says. “The same applies to channel partners. They should be establishing some governance around shadow IT.”

This means having the right security practices in place to ensure visibility of unfamiliar activity on the network.

Johnson says best practice “should be embedded into an organisation” with guidelines on how software can be purchased. “Anyone that doesn’t conform to these rules will be caught out by the firewalls and procurement team,” she says. “It’s less about taking a punitive approach and more about making leadership teams and employees in general feel comfortable with security policies.”

Greg Lalle, senior vice-president for international sales at Connectwise, says LOBs’ ability to purchase subscription services in the cloud without IT’s permission, or even knowledge, “could set a dangerous precedent and massively increase risk”. But he suggests this will open up a new role for channel partners as “the glue in the organisation to help bridge the adoption of technology to a desirable business outcome”.

“Selling to the business side may be easier from the channel perspective, but this represents only short-term thinking”
Sean Sears, Park Place Technologies

To achieve this, channel partners need “to earn a seat at the table in the boardroom of the companies they work with”, says Lalle. This would give them the option to provide a platform for dialogue among business units and to “map out an agreeable timeline and be responsible for delivery”.

Lalle adds: “This co-authored approach will make all in the business feel a shared sense of responsibility, as the outcome and timeline is agreed upon upfront and everyone becomes a stakeholder, with the channel partner acting as the linchpin.”

The good news is that the shift to business-led IT can also give partners the opportunity to play the value-add card. Jackie Groves, regional vice-president for sales at Fuze, says: “Channel partners can add a lot of value to customers by helping them to navigate the challenge of shadow IT and open up the opportunity of bring-your-own device, instead of trying to eradicate this flexibility and ban alternatives.”

With a new generation of employees entering the workplace expecting to be able to install their own apps and use their own devices, Groves suggests that partners are “ideally placed to guide their business customers in identifying the flaws within their current communications infrastructure that are forcing employees to turn to alternatives and securely bring the mobile-first, consumer-style solutions that employees are now coming to expect as standard”.

The influence of the arrival of Generation Z workers was highlighted by UK software and services company Advanced in a recent revenue announcement. Revealing that the trend had helped drive its channel sales, Dean McGlone, channel sales director, said Generation Z workers had “an emotional connection to adopting innovation, a technical first mindset and are prepared to challenge the technical status quo”.

He added: “They will expect modern technology, flexible working and a digital environment, which employers are already now forced to accommodate. Our channel partners are therefore tapping into this opportunity.”

Ensure IT still has a role

But that doesn’t excuse channel partners from working to ensure that IT still has a role in the process. Park Place Technologies’ Sears accepts that involving IT in conversations over the introduction of new technology could “complicate the sales process, as IT tends to ask tough questions”, but it will “lead to a stronger, more confident relationship with the customer”.

The process can be business-led, but IT can help to “inform decisions about the product and service investments”, he says. Involving IT can avoid having to reinvent the wheel, guarantee core system concerns are addressed earlier in the process, and ensure a smoother transition, says Sears. 

He points out: “Channel partners have a vested interest in asking proactively about the IT perspective on a product or service, or even requesting a meeting with IT representatives to review solutions – despite the fact that doing so may sometimes extend or complicate the sales process.”

Engaging the customer’s IT function, especially if it was not integral to the sales process, can “help fill any gaps that could otherwise create problems down the road”, says Sears.
 
In any case, he says, partners are very unlikely to be penalised “for pursuing extra due diligence and protecting the customer’s interests”, adding: “On the contrary, such a consultative sales approach will often allow a channel partner to rise to the top among the other, mostly self-interested, short-term- focused competitors.”

SolarWinds’ Johnson thinks partners can play a dual role for LOBs and IT. “Shadow IT can be intimidating and feel risky, but by approaching it in a smart way, channel partners can play an important role in enabling their customers to achieve the benefits of business-led IT while maintaining the oversight and negating the security risks,” she says.

That point is echoed by Fuze’s Groves, who says: “Channel partners are ideally placed to help businesses respond to shadow IT, bringing complete solutions that will put IT teams in control, while allowing employees to work in the way that feels natural to them and serving the requirements of the business overall.”

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