Here are the five biggest challenges facing IT directors over the next 18 months
As IT directors plan for 2005, their thoughts will be dominated by two factors: compliance with information legislation and regulations, and the need to achieve and demonstrate the delivery of value to an organisation.
This does not mean that technology issues will take a back seat - far from it, since both these drivers have significant technology implications. Yet it is indicative of the way that the nature of IT management is evolving towards a more business focused role. Here we look at five of the biggest challenges that IT managers will face over the next 18 months.
One of the main challenges will be managing the thousands of electronic documents swishing around in a large organisation.
This area is called document and records management. With information volumes increasing exponentially (and with no respite in sight), effective management of document and records across the whole lifecycle, from capture to archiving and destruction, has become essential and nowhere is this more evident than in the case of e-mail.
Despite the fact that e-mail is now the most commonly used form of business communication, is used in many contracts, and is widely accepted as evidence in litigation, control over the way in which it is used has not, in most organisations, reflected this growth in importance.
It is clear that most organisations don't have an effective strategy in place to manage e-mail, and are therefore exposing themselves to a major but preventable source of risk. If it is not already in place, plan now to implement a document and record management strategy that encompasses e-mail. The UK is fortunate that the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) is a world authority in this area, and is an excellent source of advice.
Standardise on suppliers
The second challenge is that of supplier standardisation. Most organisations are faced with a diverse mix of IT systems, multiple architectures, and mismatched technologies, typically supported (or in some cases no longer supported) by a multiplicity of IT suppliers and service providers.
The last two years has seen much work in IT consolidation, attempting to rationalise this heterogeneous environment from a technology perspective, but as I talk to IT directors, there is a growing understanding that this is only one part of the picture.
To further assist with consolidation, and to avoid some of the same problems with future initiatives, there is great benefit in identifying a key set of strategic suppliers which will genuinely act as partners to the organisation in delivering IT services.
There are two principal ways to approach this: either to select a very small number of partners who will essentially take on the problem for you; or to define a clear statement of your business objectives and the role of IT in supporting these, and find strong partners who will work alongside you to deliver the required capabilities. Use a formal enterprise architecture programme as the framework to plan both technology and supplier standardisation.
Another major thread is that of IT governance and delivering value. Most IT directors are only too aware of the increased scrutiny that is being applied to IT investment, but I am still staggered by those in the industry that continue to talk about a relaxation of these constraints when "times are less tight".
Although budgets may swing back to modest growth, the IT landscape has changed for good. So IT directors must therefore implement formal programmes to measure the services that their departments deliver. These measures can be used to demonstrate to the board that strong governance is in place and that they are generating positive value for the organisation.
Consider deploying a portfolio management software package. This can be a significant factor in helping to consolidate IT initiatives, reduce costs, and minimise risk. It also has the benefit that it enables this process to occur in a way that is seen to be transparent and demonstrably to the benefit of the business.
In fourth place comes storing information. Storage can no longer be treated as the poor relation within your infrastructure.
If your board told you that the company was going to double its transaction volumes every year, you would plan a highly scalable architecture to cope, but somehow with storage, we seem to feel it is acceptable to just add in some more capacity as limits are approached.
Additionally, too much emphasis is put on the archiving of information at the expense of retrieval, but the demands of compliance, audit, and litigation make this dangerous.
Further complications arise from disaster recovery requirements, where plans that seemed robust just a couple of years ago are scuppered by the realisation that the time taken for data recovery or transfer makes disaster recovery much more costly than previously forecast.
Organisations must design a storage architecture that takes into account these issues and adopts a virtualisation approach to storage management - the ability to treat the entire storage infrastructure as a single resource that can be flexibly allocated to meet the needs of the business.
For archiving and retrieval requirements, the storage media must take account of the nature of the information being saved, and the constraints for its retention, retrieval, and disposal.
Managing service providers
Whether it is offshore development, using managed services, or full-scale IT outsourcing, the effective handling of external service providers has become a key part of the IT director's role. The final challenge is therefore to become proficient in managing these relationships, to understand the effective use of service level agreements, and to extend your IT value measurements to cover service provision.
Some form of baselining or benchmarking is essential at the start of this process to ensure that both service user and service provider can periodically re-examine the value of the agreement, from a known starting point.
To some, these challenges may seem far removed from the everyday problems of keeping systems and applications running, but the horizons are changing more rapidly than you may think. The move towards a service-centric industry will require a radical realignment of IT within the business.
IT directors will increasingly be expected to focus on those activities that bring real competitive advantage. Organisations know that it is crucial to bridge the gap between their business and IT strategies, but for many businesses the process still happens inside-out, and is technology-led.
Meeting these five challenges will help IT prove the vital contribution that it can make.
Tim Jennings is research director at Butler Group