Managed Services: A Shift in the IT Department Mindset

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IT departments need to be used as masters of applying technology to business rules rather than simply technology experts who happen to work for the business.

For many companies, IT has historically been an extension of the finance department because that’s where the majority of systems began. Paper processes for finance gave way to digital processes. Soon afterward, other paper processes became digitized for order management, inventory management, shipping/receiving, and so on…down to the shop floor. The last decade has been about extending businesses with the functionality that mobile devices have offered the world.  

IT is always in a consistent state of change.

Businesses have changed with the times; some are more progressive than others. IBM i has changed over the years to embrace what customers require in things like open source, security, mobility, and cloud. But maybe IT departments (through no fault of their own) have not changed as much as they should have.

I’ve always considered myself a champion for local IT departments. I’ve been a member of a few of them over the years. I’ve led those departments too, backing up my teams and fighting for them against a myriad of opponents both internal and external.

So don’t think this is an article against IT departments. IT teams have much value—more value than what an average company might think. They make the best decisions they can with what information they have at the time. They’ve been tasked to keep the lights on when budgets have been perpetually tight. It’s a hard place to be. I get it.

The amount of change has not been in line with the resources that IT departments have been given to work with. It’s a near-impossible feat to keep up to date, let alone stay afloat.

Not too long ago, IT management had to make a choice between building or buying solutions. It happened all the time and to any shop that had its own developers. A user needed a solution, and IT would determine whether building it internally would cost more than buying a software package. It probably still happens today, but with limited budgets, I think that many shops just learn to go without much progressiveness in technology.

It’s nearly impossible for companies to employ internal IT departments with staff who are experts in everything. Or even everything that matters to them. With constant change, companies need their IT staff focusing on adding business value. That’s what they can do best. Now, IBM i does a great job in allowing customers to not worry about things like excess staff and administration overhead. The integrated database is covered in the purchase price for IBM i. Those are all good things. What’s really tough is that in the IBM i world, many of us end up doing many different roles. We’re the administrator, and then we might have to dig into some programming. We may have to change the tapes and figure out why an IFS object isn’t being picked up by the backup. Or we have to set up EDI for a new trading partner. An average IBM i professional may have his or her hands in a lot of what goes on with the operation of their systems. So what happens when one of those people leaves? A person proficient in RPG programming is hard to find, but I’d argue that finding a good IBM i administrator is much harder. Who is going to check the BRMS logs? Who knows BRMS? The coverage you used to have has suddenly disappeared, and maybe those who are left have no idea that coverage was even going on. Cross-training employees can work. However, the key word there is training. It’s an investment that has been losing emphasis for the last 15 years. It’s usually the first thing that gets cut in a budget.

Another not-so-good fact is that today’s climate is making it hard for IT departments to provide the basic care and feeding of their IBM i partitions. They don’t have the time or resources to be experts with Hardware Management Consoles or high availability or Backup Recovery Media Services or hardware or security. They’ve had downsized staff, budget cuts (which certainly affect education), and a “do more with less” mantra beaten into them for so long that the basics are hard to cover. It’s no wonder that “shadow IT” (where users bypass IT and company policy to go out and contract their own solutions in the cloud) has been on the rise in recent years. Many IT departments just don’t have the resources to do what they need to do to satisfy their users, their company, and their infrastructure.

There’s a big disconnect, and it’s been brewing for some time now.

Companies need to be focusing right now on managed services. And IT must be leading the charge.

In today’s economy and corporate mindset, IT needs to get back to providing business value. It needs to be aligned with the business to understand what assistance it can provide. It needs to guide the other business leaders into making informed decisions with technology. As the business changes, IT must be able to be flexible enough not only to change with it, but to be proactive to allow for unseen changes in the future.

The days of small businesses employing infrastructure experts are ending. The infrastructure items should really be left to those who work with infrastructure on a daily basis while local IT teams are best suited to facing the challenges of the business. Those challenges can’t be suited to external parties without a great deal of documentation, experience, or time. That’s why externally hired business project teams aren’t cheap. It takes time to fully understand business processes before making intelligent decisions to augment them, and adding new technology to the mix can complicate matters drastically. This is where the IT departments can excel in the next 20 years. Many companies have gone down that road. They’re the ones who’ve probably divorced themselves from finance departments, have leaders who report directly to the CEO, and have a seat at the table where business decisions are made. IT departments need to be used as masters of applying technology to business rules rather than simply technology experts who happen to work for the business.

I’ve spoken to a few people in the IBM i world who understand that paradigm shift, agree with it, but think it’s definitely a different mindset. They like being the people who know how to load PTFs, troubleshoot WebSphere, and upgrade the operating system. After considering how they can add more value to the business, they began to offload some of that work to external parties. They just didn’t have the time to worry about doing it—and more importantly, doing it right. Their focus was providing solutions, generating revenue, and helping the business cut costs elsewhere. Offloading the basic care and feeding of their IBM i partitions has helped them be more visible as solution providers within their companies. It’s better decision-making and shows that, by leading by example, they too can change. And it doesn’t make them any less valuable either. That’s the biggest worry. If someone gives up a job function, does that make them replaceable? Well, no. Not unless that’s all someone does! In reality, IT departments are so overburdened that the routine maintenance may get pushed out further and further. Security patches can go on next quarter instead of this one. When the focus can be put directly back onto pumping value into the business, that’s when the IT department will once again shine in the eyes of their employers. That’s when shadow IT will be a thing of the past.

Maybe that’s the step we need to be taking in order to bring our companies more value.