John Arsneault is the law firm’s chief information officer Goulston and Storrs And the founder of the 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 the technology side of things and the other half with business people trying to take advantage of technology. This is not a revolutionary approach, nor is we ahead of our time. That’s the norm.We set up the network, installed the app and Sit with people to help them use these things. After all, what’s the point of investing in all the technology and people if operations aren’t improving?
It was 1988 and I was 17 years old. I didn’t know much about technology or business, but it quickly became clear that when I helped the rest of the company improve the way they worked, they loved it — in fact, they loved it a lot. The improvements at the time were simple: set up spreadsheets, help develop a local database that could be shared, print reports automatically, etc. These improvements save people time, and in turn, they can focus more on the actual needs of their customers.
Before the adoption of the Web in the late 1990s, most of the time allocation of working with people outside of IT disappeared. As reliance on technological systems increases, so does specialization. IT people became sysadmins, network engineers, application engineers, QA engineers, etc. The real techs became too busy to spend time with “users” and began to move towards dedicated help desk staff and business relationship managers within IT. This undoubtedly increased the efficiency of technology operations; however, by the mid-2000s, a gulf appeared between those who really understood the technology and those who used it. Organizations hire trainers, and core IT staff completely forget about the things, knowledge and interests of the companies they work for.
The pattern of IT specialization has remained largely unchanged over the past two decades. Most IT people don’t understand the business they are in. This will be the ticket to the unemployment line for the next 5 to 10 years. Cloud (especially SaaS) provides the basis 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 actual tech provider), skills around infrastructure, application development and deployment, and even security controls will gradually diminish.
All you need to buy a tech app today is a credit card. Most tools can be set up without IT, and progress around API-driven integrations will only improve. Industry-standard protection is built into the product and will evolve over time. Companies don’t need too many IT staff because of the accessibility of technology.
I believe this will lead to a renewed focus on helping people use this technology. Instead of service desk workers, however, technologists focused on the most valuable asset of the century: data. Clearly, there are many examples of data manipulation disrupting industries—from retail to transportation to financial services. Predictive analytics gives us real-time investments, global supply chains that can deliver goods to your door in very short order, and advances in health science that promise to extend our lives.
The growth of a data-driven business will require nearly every employee to be data-aware. Just looking at global supply chains shows that businesses need to change the way they operate within a limited time frame based on real-time data analysis.
If you’re an IT professional and you’re not thinking about your company’s data, you’re already behind. As a business, if your IT department isn’t thinking about your data, your business is falling behind. If you can’t see trends in customer behavior toward your company, you lack the visibility your competitors have. You can’t develop a comprehensive strategy for your company if you don’t know how many VC-funded startups are innovating and looking to disrupt your business. If your best customers don’t understand the additional services your organization offers, you’re likely to lose them to competitors who can provide more comprehensive value.For example, if an organization graphs its email interactions over time, it can predict which customers will churn forward Customers even realize it.
The solution to these problems lies in data repositories distributed throughout an organization’s systems—data is siloed, unstructured, and often of poor quality. To mine this data, first you have to build a pipeline to make it useful. This includes not only the right technology, but also the right workflow to ensure quality moving forward, the right investment strategy to fix historical data, and an easy-to-use extraction layer. Achieving this goal requires a partnership between IT and the business—a partnership that IT needs to understand the business.
Time frames around technology adoption are always difficult to predict. However, it’s clear that within a decade (and possibly less), IT operations will need to get closer to a business they barely understand. This intimacy would come in the form of what is considered an analyst today. Analysts at all levels. Organizing and delivering data and aligning these services around business operations will be a value proposition for tech workers in non-tech enterprises. As in past decades, this will require IT staff to upskill their skills again — this time with a greater emphasis on re-working with people and growing into businessmen themselves.