Harmonizing Consumerization and Enterprise IT

Disruptive IT Trends3 minutes readJul 19th, 2010

I’ve been thinking about how to best describe what consumerization is doing to the IT world, and how the trend is affecting the way IT services are delivered and experienced. The following analogy seems most apt to me. Very few people in the world can write music. A larger number, but still a relatively small group, can read music well enough to play what’s on the page. But everyone can listen to a tune or feel a beat.

So what does this have to do with IT? It illustrates the key shift I see happening. The process by which IT is delivered is moving from a composer’s experience to a listener’s experience. Enterprise IT is being transformed into something that everyone can access, understand, and influence.

In a very real sense, those who have traditionally been listeners — end users — have moved ahead farther and faster than IT has been able to. They’ve started to become composers, pushing the edges of what’s possible for consumer technology to do for the business.

Meanwhile, IT’s role hasn’t changed as dramatically. It must still strategically support the business and help make money. But a natural conservatism is hindering a necessary adaptation of IT’s performance style.

This clash of styles leads to a disconnect: The employee/end-user wants IT to get with the program, and meet them where they’re living. They say, “This is how I want to interact with the system. I need the data and I want to get it my way.” But IT wants to tell them how to get it. IT is still behaving and developing applications conservatively to protect its performance, and remains averse to opening itself up to risk. Of course, that mindset runs counter to the zeitgeist of consumerization, which has a bias toward new ways of doing things, even if they’re risky.

Actually, neither side fully understands that the situation needn’t be either/or. Consumerizing IT doesn’t mean that the old ways of doing things are finished. We all remember when people said, “The mainframe is dead! Linux is dead! Cobol is dead!” Well, guess what: They’re still alive, even the venerable Cobol. They all still have their place in the enterprise, and aren’t just going to go away. Similarly, consumerization isn’t going to kill off old applications. But it will force modernization.

And if you’re thinking that modernization means shifting all of your production applications to the cloud and calling it a day, think again. If you do that without any thought as to how the app could be improved, you might get very little benefit. It’s hard to justify the benefits of taking a production workload app that’s running perfectly well and stably in your environment, and move it to the cloud. The real value is around where you can innovate. For example, enabling the application to take advantage of scaling or virtualization.

But before you can innovate, you must decide where it makes the most sense to do so. Making an app more scalable can require an investment in recoding or changing platforms, so you analyze whether doing so is worth your time and money. Increasingly, IT can’t make those decisions without opening itself up to consumerization. For example, seeing whether the application needs a new presentational interface to make it more accessible from an iPhone, Droid, or other mobile device.

Once IT understands the benefits and potential risks of consumerization, it can step into a new role — one where it acknowledges erstwhile listeners as de facto members of the formerly exclusive fraternity of composers.