Is enterprise IT more difficult to manage now than ever?

Today’s enterprise IT departments face conflicting priorities, impossible goals, and existential threats with no obvious solutions.

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I’ve been thinking about enterprise IT a lot lately, and I’ve decided it’s time to recognize just how difficult the job is becoming. I’ve been covering technology for longer than I care to admit, and I can’t remember things ever being this hard in the world of corporate technology.

Just before Thanksgiving, I tried to put a brave face on the challenges facing enterprise IT by noting that some of the things IT most likes to complain about–BYOD, loud security, diversity, and shadow IT—also come wrapped with significant silver linings.

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But the flip side may be even more true—there may be no viable a way for IT to emerge whole and healthy from the current technology and business environment.

To be fair, things have been on a downhill slope for a while now. Who’s old enough to remember when the best technology was found at work, while at home we got by with clunky home computers and pokey dial-up modems? Those days are gone, and they don’t look like they’re ever coming back.

IT is no longer in charge

Instead, today’s IT department is scrambling to deliver technology offerings that won’t get laughed at—or, just as bad, ignored—by a modern workforce raised on slick smartphones and consumer services powered by data centers far more powerful than the one their company uses. And those services work better and faster than the programs they offer, partly because consumers don’t have to worry about all the constraints that IT does, from security and privacy to, you know, actually being profitable. Plus, while IT still has to maintain all the old desktop apps, it also needs to make sure mobile users can do whatever they need to from anywhere at any time.

And that’s just the users. IT’s issues with corporate peers and leaders may be even rockier. Between shadow IT and other Software-as-a-Service, estimates say that 1 in 5 technology operations dollars are now being spent outside the IT department, and many think that figure is actually much higher. New digital initiatives are increasingly being driven by marketing and other business functions, not by IT. Today’s CMOs often outrank the CIO, whose role may be constrained to keeping the infrastructure running at the lowest possible cost instead of bringing strategic value to the organization. Hardly a recipe for success and influence.

And even that role is being threatened by the rise of Infrastructure-as-a-Service providers that sell everything from computing power to storage and bandwidth with economies of scale far beyond the reach of all but the biggest companies. Gartner has been telling IT that it needs to take a bimodal approach combining rock-solid infrastructure with a more fluid process for innovation. But the reality is that many IT departments could get cut out of both sides of that equation.

Tech's new reality

The ironic part of all this is that technology has never been more powerful, or more important to organizations. Yet the people traditionally in charge of buying, installing, and managing that technology are facing unprecedented challenges. With technology at the center of everything, a focus on technology per se makes less sense than it once did.

If IT wants to stay relevant, we’re going to have to find a way to leverage our deep understanding of technology to a new environment, working with other parts of the organization and relying on influence and expertise instead of gatekeeping and rigid rules. I hate to be Debbie Downer, but even if those efforts are successful, next-generation IT will not look the same as that of the previous generation, and may not offer the same opportunities and rewards it once did. That’s not sour grapes; it’s reality.

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