IT’s identity crisis: What’s my job again?

October 16, 20185 Minute Read

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Was I hired to reset passwords or drive innovation?” Have you ever thought this before? Don’t worry—you’re not alone.

If you’re feeling a little lost about what you’re really doing at work, blame the zeitgeist. Information technology’s currently suffering an identity crisis. You may have dreamed of a career where you could play with mind-blowing technology, like autonomous cars or biometrics. Instead, you spend a lot of time dealing with IT nightmares, like yet another round of phishing training.

At the crossroads of new and old, industry giants and tech unicorns alike are struggling to show the value of IT and move forward. In Fortune, tech industry analyst Erin Griffith describes how many huge tech companies are facing a ride-or-die need to become more agile and transform—while unicorn startups are unable to go public but are worth too much to get acquired. It’s a giant round of strategic dilemmas for everyone.

Forget the companies, though. IT’s identity crisis is about more than the challenges facing companies that bring in a lot of cash and startups that cause disruption. IT’s value and status within an organization is in a state of flux. Need proof? Ask yourself: Would your boss and your boss’s boss agree on what IT’s role is within the organization? Probably not—and that’s cause for concern.

IT vs. Sisyphus’s hill

Even though the IT team’s day-to-day responsibilities have changed significantly over the last 15 years, the biggest challenge you face every day is exactly the same: defining the strategic value of information technology to non-technical people. IT’s master task is to balance daily tasks with strategic goals, while moving the company in a smart direction.

Today, 62 percent of IT teams have a massive backlog of mobile apps waiting to be developed. Some companies have more than 10 app ideas in backlog. Developers on StackExchange report they’re spending 90 percent of their time maintaining systems and 10 percent doing actual development—and other developers respond with, “Yup, sounds about right.” There’s also a raging IT and cybersecurity talent shortage—in case you haven’t heard.

Your team’s specific concerns probably look pretty different than they did 15 years ago (raise your hand if you’re still trying to maintain a complex web of integration around your enterprise resource planning software, because we feel for you). Instead, you’re officially freaking out over things like the security climate and shadow IT—and you’re still dealing with loads of unexpected crises, time-consuming maintenance on your current systems, and tons of redundant help desk requests. What gives?

Owning the value of IT

A long, long time ago—2003 to be exact—Harvard Business Review published a controversial think piece titled, “IT Doesn’t Matter.” Spoiler: IT really matters—but not if you’re stuck in maintenance mode. Author Nicholas Carr argued that simply having technology was no longer a strategic advantage; companies need to develop an edge over their competition by delivering new tech that other firms can’t offer.

Fourteen years later, Carr’s more right than ever. Your company’s not going to get anywhere during an industry-wide tech identity crisis if IT leaders’ time and attention is tied up helping people reset their passwords. You can’t become more agile, adopt design-thinking, or finally see that dang IPO unless you take a stand on the identity and value of information technology to your business.

Research reveals that two-thirds of CIOs are responsible for driving revenue, but only one-third report to the CEO. Shifting the needle on how your team is perceived within your organization from order-takers to magic-makers calls for a variety of initiatives to prove your value.

1. Invest in IT initiatives

“Wow, what do I do with all of this extra budget?” said no IT manager ever. On global average, there wasn’t even an increase in corporate tech budgets between 2015–2016, despite increasingly scarce tech talent and mounting pressure on tech teams to deliver.

The secret may be dedicating next year’s budget to initiatives or proactive projects designed to expand your capabilities instead of responding to need. Pricewaterhouse Cooper research reports that IT initiatives that drive the kind of value within a company that makes your CEO say “Wow!” generally have four criteria in common:

  1. Build new capabilities for the organization
  2. Projects with the technical capacity (talent) to succeed
  3. A lot of potential initiative reward, compared to initiative risk
  4. Operations alignment; your company’s prepared to adopt, grow, and benefit from the initiative

2. Automate it already

Learn to just say no to high-maintenance tech. Your company may never completely rid itself of silly help desk requests. But you can automate some tasks that suck up ridiculous amounts of time, allowing you to become more strategic. Taking advantage of the latest tech innovations—like smarter network monitoring and self-healing printers—can allow you to gain some massive efficiency.

3. Shift from help desk to innovation station

Proving the value of IT requires making the shift from “order-taker” to “solution-creator,” writes business author Dave Brock. He argues that people need ideas, not fixes. Improving the “customer” experience—in which your colleagues are the “customers” of your tech team—requires shifting IT to a role where they’re consultants instead of humble geek-gnomes. The most effective IT teams deliver innovation by hitting each of the following:

  • Creating self-service opportunities whenever possible
  • Integrating information from sources to reduce confusion
  • Creating a skilled workforce focused on experience
  • Outsourcing and automating when possible

Information technology’s not going anywhere, even if the industry’s in a state of flux and we still don’t have on-demand drone pizza delivery. In the age of industry-wide identity crisis, IT pros are challenged to define their value within the organization, so take note and start making waves today.

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