In the late 1990s, I was responsible for technical operations for a large healthcare organization. We supported more than 5,000 users across 50 locations and supported three distinct lines of business. We were a very progressive organization at the leading edge of technology innovation in healthcare.
It was not a simple operation.
Well, at least not for 1997. When I compare that environment to what IT leaders face today, however, a shudder of relief washes over me.
There is no point in whitewashing this: Managing the function of IT in my day was child’s play compared to the incredible diversity of challenges facing the modern IT leader. Is it so complex, in fact, that it cannot truly be managed?
A diversity of challenges
At a recent gathering of IT leaders, the full diversity of challenges facing them was evident. The East IT Leaders Forum, produced by SINC USA, brought together more than 50 IT leaders from a wide range of industries and organizational types.
Leaders from organizations such as HealthSouth, Canadian Tire, Bank of America, The City of Toronto and Century Health Systems attended the three-day event held in Miami. The discussion docket exposed the difficulties facing IT leaders.
In the event’s workshops, think tanks and general sessions, the discussions spanned the usual suspects (security, big data/analytics, cloud), emerging technologies (hyperconvergence, blockchain), emerging strategies (digital ecosystems, new work models) and management issues (women in technology, talent retention, improving human interaction).
It was fascinating to observe conversations move effortlessly between incredibly complex topics. One moment, it was a deep dive into the specific technical and business implications of deploying a particular technology. In the next, the group would be engrossed in an in-depth conversation about the impact of technology on a specific industry.
And at several points during the event, it occurred to me that managing an environment this complex is pushing the boundaries of traditional IT leadership capabilities.
Rising to the challenge
Despite the whirlwind of issues facing them, the prevailing mood of the executives in attendance was excitement and hopefulness. Each attendee acknowledged the enormity of the challenges facing them, but they also felt there was a path forward.
“I could name 20 things that I’m dealing with right now,” shared Ed Mattison, vice president of IT infrastructure, communications, and cybersecurity at Guthrie, a non-profit healthcare provider. “But you can’t eat an elephant all at once. It just comes down to prioritizing those things that have the greatest payoff with the least effort. It’s all about being creative.”
It was also clear that creative uses of technology and the sharing of ideas would play a significant role in dealing with the complexity that the ubiquity of technology creates.
“We’re dealing with major issues, such as dealing with scarcity of resources, with so many of our employees retiring, and balancing the competing needs of data demand and security,” explained Fazal Husain, director of Enterprise Solutions with the City of Toronto. “But events like these which bring me and my fellow executives together with the most innovative technology companies to help us understand what tools can help put us on the right path to dealing with these issues.”
A focus on diversity and the human side of IT
The most striking idea from the event, however, was that the best way to cope with the array of challenges IT leaders face is through diversity itself. Moderating the Women in Technology Leadership discussion, Nutanix's vice president of corporate marketing, Julie O’Brien, asked why it has been so difficult to get women into tech and IT despite numerous studies showing a direct correlation between greater diversity and higher levels of organizational performance.
The need for a greater focus on both gender and ethnic diversity—and on the broader human element within IT—thread throughout the event with discussions about addressing human needs through technology, retaining executive level talent and building better executive relationships.
But the idea that greater diversity could help IT leaders cope with the complexity was the most intriguing. O’Brien pointed to Nutanix’s “Webscale Women” initiative, which started as an internal, grassroots effort but has blossomed into a broader external effort that is playing an important role in shaping the organization’s culture as the company grows—reinforcing the idea that diversity brings new ideas and fresh perspectives.
Is IT becoming too complex to manage? The answer is most likely "yes" for leaders who cling to traditional management paradigms. But for organizations that embrace diversity—in ideas, in technologies, in approach and in people—there is a hopeful path forward.
Disclosure: SINC USA covered my travel expenses to the East IT Leaders Forum, a standard industry practice. As of the time of writing, none of the organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers.
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