Today, every company is an IT company. It’s a cliché but it’s true. There cannot be a single business today that has not changed and developed as information technology has come into play; even the smallest one-person micro-business makes use of smartphones.
At the higher end, though, enterprise-grade ERP and CRM systems have revolutionised how business is done, and the cloud is busy changing how people interact with not only software but storage, processing and even professional services.
If there is one thing that can be said for sure about IT, it is that it delivers change.
There are other IT clichés, too, though. Less kind ones. Think Channel Four’s The IT Crowd: recalcitrant, conservative and unenthusiastic, the laggards of corporate culture rather than its leaders.
Unfortunately, there is some truth in this cliché also, although not because of mythic systems administrators who cannot or will not communicate. One issue is that IT is often a pain point in an organisation: as with the primary care health services, people only contact the helpdesk when there is a problem. When you add to this the impossible demands made by users whose daily use of Microsoft Word or Facebook makes them think that their tech skills are stronger than they actually are, you have a recipe for trouble.
Despite this, as IT has a central role in business, it can also be used to improve the business itself. And this move from IT being seen as the people who are fitting print cartridges to something that can change the culture of an organisation has been made easier by the presence of IT at board level.
Communication is key
David Dunn, principal development engineer at a leading graphics company in Cambridge, says that IT has a central role in how modern organisations work, primarily around communication.
“We rely on information radiators and information flows to keep employees informed about key business indicators,” he says.
Dunn’s company uses a range of technologies and services to ensure that communication goes as smoothly as possible.
“It’s critical to our business that engineers can communicate directly and simply with each other across multiple development sites in a transparent and visible way.
“We rely heavily on video conferencing technology, such as LifeSize, information flow systems such as Microsoft Teams or Slack and Flowdock, and information radiators which are highly visible around the office,” he explains.
Social communication software such as Slack, for instance, can replace incomprehensible e-mail chains and keep projects moving along. After all, there is no need to stop everything just to get a point of information.
History of change
Of course, IT has always changed the culture of organisations. The 1980s saw the first tentative moves from paper-based filing to electronic storage, radically changing how administrative tasks were performed—and who they were performed by.
Today, full-blown digital transformations are underway, with an emphasis on web-first and online self-service for customers. In addition, entirely new business operations have been developed, including analytics and widespread mobility.
“I think IT can make all the difference in a business,” says Dr Bill Mitchell, director of public affairs at BCS, the UK’s Chartered Institute for IT.
Mitchell warns that businesses that rely too much on subcontracting and other external relationships put themselves at risk.
“Where is the IP? Where is the intelligence? A lot of it is embedded in your IT systems [and] if your systems are woeful then your IP is locked-up or you may have set it up in someone else’s platform,” he says.
Mitchell has a clear idea of what good IT should look like when it comes to business.
He says: “Where it has been made so that it is modular usable and extendible, your organisational culture will be much more agile and much more able to embrace change.”
Taking advantage of new technologies requires cultural change, though. Deploying new software and services does not mean that they will be utilised properly. And yet, IT is rising to the challenge with practices founded in IT moving out into the wider culture of a business.
For example, agility is something that has dominated IT debates in recent years with the deployment of devOps becoming almost standard. This increased flexibility is a business need, but it is one that is being delivered by IT departments.
What matters is that the change process has buy-in at both board and staff levels, rather than simply being a case of forcing the latest shiny technology on unwilling or confused workers.
Once the right IT systems are deployed for the right reasons then change will follow, naturally and progressively.
Risks remain, however. As Bill Mitchell puts it, IT’s central role in business operations today means that it is not simply a case of seeking to effect positive change. Rather, it is a case of get it wrong and there will be trouble.
“If you have bad IT you will create silos and inhibit communication across an organisation.”