The French have an expression: "Plus ‡a change, plus c'est la meme chose." Literally translated, this means, "The more things change, the more they are the same", and casting an eye across today's corporate IT world, this phrase couldn't be more apt.
This may seem heresy to an industry that prides itself on its hectic rate of irreversible change. Yet despite truisms - such as Moore's Law which holds that growth in everything from memory to bandwidth to processor speed is exponential - and upstart opinions which suggest any IT professional over the age of 253/4 is past their sell-by date, IT is subject to a clutch of constant themes that prove the more IT changes, the more it remains the same.
So what are the constant themes that beset the corporate IT function?
"IT has always been very consistent about the challenges that face it," says Mark Lillycrop, director of research at industry watchers, Xephon. "There's the issue of finding the right skills, of operating within cost constraints, dealing with increased demands from business and keeping up with new technology."
Just what those particular skills, cost constraints, business demands and new technology might be at any one time will vary over the years, but the fact that these challenges exist is a predictable constant.
For example, it doesn't matter what the particular skill in shortest supply is at any particular time, Lillycrop points out. The problem facing the IT department is that "everyone is going after the same skills at the same time".
Therefore, IT always operates in a climate where the most popular skill of the time is scarce. Whether it's PL/1 in the 1970s or Java today - only the severity of the scarcity varies.
That year-on-year variability, of course, means that the problem looms larger or smaller in the minds of IT directors as they track the fluctuations.
In a survey of 72 IT directors across Europe and the US, published last week, Xephon reports that nearly 80% of IT chiefs, "rate the skills shortage as one of their three most serious challenges for the future", compared with 66% in a similar survey two years ago.
Cause and effect
The variability of the severity of the eternal challenges for IT is not uniform across the spectrum, although there may well be cause-and-effect connections.
At the moment, obviously, the area of scarcest skills is in anything with the "e-word". Yet it is the e-word that is easing the cost constraints on IT. This easing might be dramatic, as the Gartner Group points out.
Its latest survey of IT spending and staffing, concludes that the percentage of turnover spent on IT is rising sharply in companies considered to be leading-edge adopters of IT.
Leading-edge technology adopters spend an average of 11% of turnover on IT (about $17,500 per employee), whereas mainstream adopters spend an average of 5% of turnover (some $21,000 per employee), and conservative companies only 3% of turnover ($11,000 per employee).
"If an enterprise is a conservative adopter of technology but if its strategy is to become a mainstream adopter, it must increase its IT spend by 160%," says Gartner's Kurt Potter.
That increase in IT spend must soar to 220% if it wants to be leading-edge. These are huge chunks of money to be talking about, and they must be spent wisely, not foolishly if they are to bring home a good return on investment.
As the Xephon survey illustrates, IT itself is now increasingly in the front line when it comes to guiding that investment and meeting business demands.
"We see the IT director of the future acting not as a line manager but as top-level service provider to the organisation," says Lillycrop. "This means not only drawing heavily on the corporate experience of internal project teams, but bringing in external specialists as needs demand."
But even before service is delivered, the decision to use the service must be made, and IT is being increasingly drawn in at an earlier stage in the process.
"Most IT directors in the survey believe that they will play an increasingly large role in corporate decision-making over the next two years," says Lillycrop.
"With e-commerce topping the board-room agenda, 54% [of IT directors surveyed] say they expect to exert more influence within the organisation, compared with just 8% who see their influence diminishing."
So, unless and until the whole e-commerce bonanza goes belly-up in disappointment and disgrace, it looks as if another constant theme is about to be added to the IT director's list of challenges - not just meeting business demands but formulating them in the first place.
IS Plans - Tomorrow's Data Center is available from Xephon
Gartner's IT Spending and Staffing report is available at the website
Challenges and what they'll cost