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IT's alive!

January 09, 2008

"The IT department is dead, author argues," announces a NetworkWorld headline. And I, apparently, am the author in question.

Now, far be it from me to criticize a sensationalistic title, but since it's been Slashdotted and generally kicked around the Net like a hacky sack, I figure I should provide a gloss on it. What I actually argue in The Big Switch, in the context of a description of the history of corporate IT and the recent rise of the Internet as a shared computing grid, is that the traditional identity of IT departments, as the builders and maintainers of private computing systems, is going to change - steadily and, I think, fundamentally - as companies draw on the grid to fulfill more and more of their computing requirements.

If we look at the end game - a decade or two down the road for big companies; sooner for smaller ones - it's hard to imagine that the "IT department" as we've come to know it will still exist. Many of the information-management and process-design skills currently housed in IT departments will continue to be of great value to companies, of course, but they will likely have been absorbed into business units and other departments instead of being isolated in a technically focused corporate function. Many of the purely technical jobs will have shifted from the users to the suppliers or been automated out of existence.

As I discuss with Ed Cone in the new edition of CIO Insight, this transition is going to bring big benefits to companies. What it offers, after all, is greater choice; it breaks a lot of the old constraints that have hobbled IT management in the past:

One of the great advantages of IT is its modularity. Companies should not think of this as some all-or-nothing choice. You can tailor your systems and your use of utility suppliers to do anything you need to do with IT. You shouldn't think your choices are going to be constrained through this transformation; it's going to give companies more choices in the end ...

One of the big challenges for IT departments is to figure out which elements they want to supply locally, which they want to get from the grid and how that mix will change over time as the utility offerings mature, proliferate and become cheaper. Determining where you put the "data socket," and where you move it over time, is going to have a big effect on how efficiently and effectively companies are going to use IT into the future.

IT departments still have a good long life ahead of them, and the quality of that life will be much improved if they embrace, rather than resist, the new choices presented by Web-based computing. To misquote Nietzsche: That which may kill us can also make us stronger.


Our take on it:

The focus of the classical IT department will shift away from the development of a proprietary line of business applications to the consulting when it comes to business requirements and solution selection, deployment of buy-over-build applications, IT governance, and IT project portfolio management.

Anything we have forgotten?

Posted by: Harald Felgner at January 10, 2008 03:05 AM

I've just received your book, commented it—but I want to see with the rest of my lab how to put it to send it to you.
Before that, as you seem to need crisis-management, I'd offer a comparison. The electrification is the best example, but accounting provides a closer example, that might make better sense to the less-then centenary readership of Slashdot. Accountants were bound to see their job change dramatically with micro-computers twenty years ago——and they unloaded a great deal of their job to both ERP companies (the utilities) and the users (who have more decision power with Gmail too). They still exist, but their job changed a great deal——for the best.

Posted by: Bertil at January 10, 2008 06:04 AM

IT departments aren't going away for a long time if ever. There is no way corporations are going to entrust their data to Internet providers even if Microsoft and Google were included in that group. End users in large corporations cannot simply unpack a new PC, plug it into a LAN outlet and be instantly configured with a user ID and the appropriate security access to the applications that are necessary to their work. IT departments are required to do that type of function in large enterprises. In smaller companies perhaps one could get by with "Jane or Joe is our IT person". I currently consult for a multi-national company spanning every continent except Antarctica and there is no way in the immediate or short term future that the organization could survive without the IT department.
On a seperate note, when are you going to get your new book available for the Amazon Kindle?

Posted by: Mike Drips at January 10, 2008 10:26 AM

The Kindle version should be out shortly.

As to PC maintenance, watch for desktops-as-a-service to grow in popularity in coming years. See desktone.com, for instance.


Posted by: Nick Carr at January 10, 2008 11:06 AM

Some reader reactions to the brief excerpt we ran in December here.

I look forward to reader comments on our conversation.

Posted by: Ed Cone at January 10, 2008 02:15 PM

The decentralization of corporate IT of the mainframe to the PC was probably the greatest single factor in U.S. business being able to surge ahead in productivity that this country has ever seen. Suddenly, there was the ability for the office worker to easily apply their business knowledge using the computer and to automate tasks, perform real forecasting, and generally manage information. The desktop revolution brought such fertile thought to the office re-engineering process that many tasks (not just repetitive) were totally revamped by users without the morons in IT wearing pocket protectors. That is the reason we've seen so many business units invest in technology... to get away from the constraints of the IT department who only see their job as handling data.

So, if IT is able to reclaim the infrastructure via consolidation and utility computing, we're in for a world of hurt. As a betting man, I am pretty confident that we will see a rapid decline in the ability of the office worker in gaining any new efficiency because of how tightly the technology will be locked down. Quite honestly, I can't imagine that many business units will give up their desktops and departmental servers and go back to some form of utility computing.

If this does happen on the business side (and it may very well happen for the home user) then maybe in 10 years, Nick can start writing a book on this so called transformation and call it "The Big Slide."

Posted by: PhilRack at January 10, 2008 03:42 PM

Very interesting book Nick. I just reviewed it in BusinessWeek: http://tinyurl.com/3dhp72

Steve Baker

Posted by: Steve Baker at January 10, 2008 05:35 PM


I’m in broad agreement with you on this one. However, where you see a refocused IT department I see its complete elimination. Once the IT functions you’ve identified have been redistributed between the operational arms of the business and external suppliers, just what do you think is left for the IT department to do?

Posted by: Greg Quinn at January 11, 2008 04:54 AM

I am yet to read "The Big Switch" but can pretty much guess what it is talking about.

I tend to agree with the statement that role and shape of IT will change as it may get decentralised to Business units or departments.

The isolated , technically focused IT department creates considerable business-IT divide. More often than not IT is focused on high end computing stuffs like ERP systems and enterprise wide initiatives. However, there are hundreds and thousands of "lesser" processes and problems that never come up as a priority for IT department. These "lesser" problems/problems are more often than not very vital to the day to day functioning of business units/departments. These "lesser" processes are often collaborative in nature and often span across department boundaries. These "lesser" processes often contribute to the "competitive differentiation" of an enterprise.

I guess the business units , given the right set of tools will start automating and implementing these processes on their own with minimal support from IT departments. The catalyst for this is the realization that "templatised" ERP systems and the like is not enough to differentiate an enterprise from its competitor.

Watch out for startup initiatives which will enable an average user to conceive, design and deploy business processes, applications and workflows over the internet without being a techo.

Posted by: Sunil Krishnan at January 11, 2008 09:28 AM

My iPhone is my IT department! What else do I need? Ten expensive PHDs figuring out how many Java classes can dance on the head of a pin?

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 at January 11, 2008 10:14 AM

The value of predictions like Mr. Carr's is truly in the analysis of the current situation, whatever you think about the actual predictions.
Given IT's usual treatment as an expense rather than an investment, there will always be pressure to manage the expense to its minimal level. The idea that IT will migrate to business areas has been tried, called de-centralization where portions of IT that deliver and maintain applications are assigned to report to the VP of the area that uses a particular set of applications. What you ended up with was multiple IT departments instead of one, usually scrapping with each other over resources and such, and often delivering similar redundant applications, especially when a company is organized by geography rathert than business line.
It all comes back to that fact that information is not a physical thing like electricity or other commodities. There are no laws of physics for information that would contrain but also lead to uniformity in its use. That's why the 'best' information management/access products don't always succeed, as per the recent demise of the Netscaper browser.
So, will I say that Mr. Carr is right or wrong? No, because the most notable evolutions (or revolutions) of information use have never beem predicted, and I think that will be the case for some time to come.

Posted by: Dave Wright at January 11, 2008 11:03 AM

where you see a refocused IT department I see its complete elimination.

I don't disagree. As I wrote, I think ultimately the IT department is likely to disappear as its functions are absorbed by, on the one hand, utility suppliers and, on the other, business units and other departments. But, for larger companies at least, that lies well out into the future. In the meantime, IT departments will have a lot of work to do for many years.

Posted by: Nick Carr at January 11, 2008 11:24 AM

It's even possible that the Big Switch will drive more technical activity in IT. What we're really talking about is commoditization of those aspects of IT that don't deliver competitive value.

Properly done, commoditization delivers a better service for less money. That would free up resources to work on things that are competitively differentiated.

Consider the client-server revolution. It had all the same underpinnings at a high level, yet it drove more not less innovation.

More on my blog:




Posted by: BobWarfield at January 11, 2008 05:52 PM

IT has become a commodity in many areas, including business IT. However, it has become a rather complex commodity, quite unlike dish washers and mobile phones. This is the reason why I strongly disagree with the argument that IT departments in their classical role will disappear. IT departments may (today) have a wrong self-understanding, contributing to the complexity of business IT themselves, but that's not the point. It cannot be expected of business users in business departments to know the latest details of how to map their requirements onto IT environments, tools and techniques. This requires qualified translation, it requires strategic planning and enforcement throughout the enterprise. We tend to think that everything becomes easier and plug-and-play... but in fact, even the most common end-user operating system Micro$oft Windows in its various flavours still bears immense complexity. We're far away from the Startrek.like interactive computing with voice control and intelligent computers.

Therefore, I dare to say that IT departments will even become stronger in their significance for business success as more and more functions the business side of companies implement, they tend to rely on certain IT components they do not themselves understand on a technical level.


Posted by: gandalf94305 at January 18, 2008 05:12 AM

I suppose IT people will not be needed but nor will scribblers when the book writing machines are finally trained to write sensationalist claptrap like this.

Posted by: Spoofles at January 18, 2008 03:52 PM

Posted by: William Vambenepe at January 28, 2008 01:01 PM

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