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As companies move more of their software to the cloud, there are some indispensible skills IT pros need to hone or acquire, and they’re not technical skills.
They'll need to be better business problem solvers, like Salesforce.com specialists who sit with marketing teams and cook up new ways to use that software to help them. They'll need to be big picture thinkers, like someone who anticipates how executives might make better use of an iPhone, rather than someone who just knows how to get corporate email onto the device. And they'll need to be first-rate program managers, people who can drive projects to the finish, not just take orders and knock out the technical piece of it.
That's the view of one CIO, Brady Corp.'s Bentley Curran, an innovative IT leader who has embraced the cloud more aggressively than most.
I've spoken regularly with Curran for years, and have listened as he patiently, steadily moved Brady more toward software as a service of late, gauging when the company was ready for the next step. A quiet, unassuming guy, Curran's not going to jump on a conference table and try to convert you to the cloud. But I asked, so he shared his cloud computing strategy, and how he thinks software as a service is changing his IT organization and its relationship with the rest of the business.
Brady's a growing manufacturer of products such as specialty labels and precision die-cut materials, with customers including mobile device makers and annual sales above $1 billion. Curran dipped Brady's toe in SaaS about three years ago, with Salesforce.com CRM. The company has since added Workday HR apps, Google Apps for collaboration, and Concur for expenses, and Curran expects to add Ariba for procurement and Omniture for Web analytics soon.
For one example of how the cloud changes what IT pros do, consider Brady's Salesforce.com specialists. Curran has two people in the U.S., one in Asia, and one in Europe whose role is to help business units leverage the Salesforce apps and other IT to solve problems. "They live and breathe in the business all day long," Curran says.
Google Apps provides another example. In the past, Brady had Domino developers keeping its Lotus email servers running. Switching to Google Apps let it eliminate more than 40 servers.
Now those staffers are doing things like working with the company's R&D to ensure that employees in its Asian and U.S. design centers can do the kind of collaboration they need to, using Google apps. For example, IT employees have helped colleagues use Google Sites to set up their own project pages, so they can post content rather than emailing it around.
Cloud software can bring its compromises--fewer features, less ability to customize. Google Apps doesn't have all the features and functions of Microsoft Exchange, Curran says, and IT leaders need to make that fact clear to their colleagues.
But people are using more features than they were in Lotus because Apps is easy to use, Curran says. And, it's has lowered costs, let IT focus more on strategy than implementation, and met Brady's global collaboration needs. The only real hiccup has been for its employees in China using Google Apps. "One day it'll be working, the next day a certain group of people will just be denied access to certain functionality, and you can't predict it," Curran says.
When Curran is hiring for these cloud-centric roles, he often can't hire people with direct experience working on the platform, such as Google developers. "Being too far out in front is a challenge," he says. But instead of looking for people with Google Apps experience, he looks for people excited by the idea of working in this mode--focusing on using IT to solve business problems rather than running systems.
Even as Brady keeps moving toward cloud apps, Curran doubts many companies will want to run ERP software as a service, since effective ERP requires too much customization. Though there might be a point, some years away, that it could become a hosted service.
Curran sums up what he wants from his IT pros in three principles: entrepreneurial IT, so they're coming up with new ideas; connected IT, so they're plugged into business units and anticipating needs; and IT as a trusted adviser, so business units see the value of calling IT into discussions early.
The move to the cloud has changed how Brady's broader business looks at IT, he thinks. And that has changed what Curran looks for in the IT professionals he hires and grooms. Expect other cloud adopters to follow a similar path.