October 7, 2022

John Arsneault is the law firm’s CIO Goulston & Storrs and the founder of venture capital firm Portfolio X.

When I started my career in the IT department of a financial services company, I spent half my time doing tech stuff and the other half with entrepreneurs trying to leverage technology. This was not a revolutionary approach or that we were acting ahead of our time. That was the norm. We built networks, installed applications and sat with people to help them use things. After all, what was the point of investing in all the technology and staff if there was no improvement in operation?

It was 1988 and I was 17 at the time. I knew very little about either technology or business, but it became clear very quickly that the other people in the company liked it when I helped them improve the way they worked – in fact, they really liked it. The improvements at the time were simple: setting up spreadsheets, helping to develop local databases that could be shared, automating report printing, etc. These improvements saved time and, in turn, allowed them to focus more on the real needs of their customers.

In the run up to the adoption of the Web in the late 1990s, most of the time sharing that worked with people outside of IT disappeared. As reliance on technological systems grew, so did specialization. IT people became system administrators, network engineers, application engineers, quality assurance engineers, etc. Real technologists became too busy to spend time with “users” and the move to dedicated help desk people and business relationship managers within IT began. This has certainly driven efficiency in technology operations. However, by the mid-2000s, there was a gap between people who actually understood the technology and people who used it. Organizations hired trainers and key IT staff completely lost perspective, knowledge and interest in what the company they were working for was doing.

The IT specialization model has remained largely the same over the past two decades. Most of the IT people do not understand the business they work for. In the next five to ten years, this will be a ticket to the unemployment line. The cloud (and especially SaaS) has set the stage for a massive reduction in the need for IT specialists. Unless you work for a tech company like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, or a tech startup (the real tech providers), skills revolving around infrastructure, app development and deployment, and even security controls will fade in need.

Buying tech apps today only requires a credit card. Most tools can be set up without IT, and progress on API-based integrations will only improve. Industry standard protections are built into the offerings and will continue to evolve over time. Companies won’t need a lot of IT people for technology accessibility.

I believe this will result in a return to focus on helping people use technology. Not by help desk staff, however, but by technologists focused on this century’s most valuable commodity: data. Clearly, there have been many examples of data operations disrupting industries — from retail to transportation to financial services. Predictive analytics has given us real-time investments, a global supply chain that can deliver goods to your door in a fraction of the time, and advances in health science that promise to extend our lifespans.

The evolution of the data-driven business will require almost every employee to be data-savvy. Look no further than the global supply chain to see the need for a business to change the way it operates in finite time frames based on real-time data analysis.

If you’re an IT professional and you’re not thinking about your company’s data, then you’re already falling behind. As a business, if your IT department isn’t thinking about your data, then your business is falling behind. If you can’t see the trends in your customers’ behavior towards your company, then you don’t have the visibility that your competition has. If you don’t know how many VC-backed startups are innovating and looking to disrupt your business, then you can’t develop a comprehensive strategy for your company. If your best customers don’t know about the additional services your organization offers, then you’re likely to lose them to a competitor who can offer a more complete value proposition. For example, if an organization records their email interactions over time, then one can predict which customers will be lost before the customer even realizes it.

The solution to these issues lies in the data repositories that are scattered throughout an organization’s systems—data that is isolated, unstructured, and often of poor quality. To mine this data, you first need to build the plumbing to make it useful. This includes not only the right technology, but also the right workflows to ensure quality in the future, the right investment strategy to correct historical data, and an export layer that is easy to use. Getting there requires a partnership between IT and the business – a partnership where IT people need to understand the business.

Time frames are always difficult to predict regarding technology adoption. However, it seems clear that in a decade (probably less), IT operations should be much closer to businesses that they barely understand. This proximity will come in the form of becoming what is now considered an analyst. Analyst at all levels. Organizing and delivering data and tailoring these services around business operations will be the value proposition of tech workers in a non-tech business. Like decades past, this will require IT workers to once again develop their skills—this time with a greater emphasis on getting back to working with people and becoming entrepreneurs themselves.

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