How IT Can Keep Its Strategic Role In 2013

Jan 04, 2013 (09:01 AM EST)

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Galen Gruman at InfoWorld is offering a dire warning: 2013 is the year IT may lose its "seat at the table" in helping set business strategy. Gruman's warning is worth a read, but he ignores the most important remedy: an IT focus on a company's end customers.

Gruman is downright gloomy in asserting that IT organizations have failed to become a strategic asset:

"IT didn't fundamentally change in the last decade -- and has largely lost its chance to claim its spot at the strategic executives' table. Sadly, despite all the talk about being strategic, IT's focus in most companies has remained on core transactional and financial systems, and where its role has broadened has been in security enforcement, not enablement."

He cites as evidence IT's resistance to trends such as consumer-friendly smartphones, tablets and cloud services:

"IT organizations largely resisted, first claiming doom-and-gloom scenarios, then raising security objections [that] didn't even apply to the desktop. The pace of consumerization only accelerated, as it became clear that IT's claims were of the Chicken Little or Boy Who Cried Wolf variety -- not Cassandra's warning of the Trojan Horse."

Gruman's right that IT whiffed on the mobile revolution, too often reacting instead of leading. In a recent column on 6 Ways IT Still Fails The Business, I included mobility high on my list. But BYOD policies aren't the difference-maker between relevant and irrelevant IT organizations today. The difference comes from whether IT is helping the company provide services that are highly relevant to its end customers.

Gruman also rightly points out that IT too often uses security as a reason to say no. But he doesn't put much emphasis on the flip-side opportunity: IT's deep knowledge of transactional systems is one of the essential assets it must exploit to provide new, tech-powered services to customers.

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Consider what Sears is contemplating. It's now analyzing petabytes of customer data and trying to provide real-time offers via smartphones to shoppers while they're in its stores. Sears can't do that data analysis and marketing without a deep understanding of its transactional systems -- such as knowing what's in stock in a store so that it's not promoting a treadmill that's sold out.

Look at UPS's new My Choice service, which lets customers reroute a package that's already out on the road in a driver's truck. CIO Dave Barnes describes the service as easy to imagine but hard to engineer. UPS's customer database, its package-routing technology, its Web interface and its billing systems all had to be modified or accessed in a new way to deliver the new service.

Look at the CUNA Mutual Group smartphone app that lets people apply for a car loan while they're standing on a dealer's lot. Building that app took a couple of IT pros, working with the business manager of that process, who understood the loan documentation and compliance process and related (cloud-based) software.

IT leaders should heed Gruman's stark warning that IT isn't guaranteed a place in strategic discussions simply by the fact that technology is becoming more essential to the company. But to be relevant, IT pros at every level must spend 2013 improving their understanding of the needs of the company's ultimate customer.

For more, see: A Proposal For IT: Set Just One Goal For 2013.