IT is dead. Long live IT.

I’ve worked in the IT sector for 14 years. The majority of that stint has been spent in public & third sector organisations. In all that time I can’t remember the pace of technological change being quite so rapid.

And that’s by no means bad thing! I love new technology and I’m a big fan of change but it’s something that most organisations in our sector struggle to keep pace with.

The IT department were once the purveyors of everything digital. We introduced the first PDA devices that you had to sync via USB to carry your email around. We gave people their first laptops that came in suitcase sized carry bags and weighed as much as a small toddler. We told people that social networks & instant messaging platforms were okay, but weren’t a serious communications replacement for trusty old email.

So what happened? Has IT become a lumbering dinosaur?

Technology has become mainstream and the barrier for using it is getting lower all the time. When I was five I got my first computer (Amstrad CPC464 FTW) and it came with a ring bound manual that was comparable in size to the Boeing 747 owners guide. I took me the best part of a day to figure out how to load games from the cassette deck. This year my daughters (2 & 3 years old respectively) had Android tablets for Christmas and within 10 minutes they were happily using them unaided.

People from non-traditional IT backgrounds are becoming skilled in areas like mobile and cloud because they use that technology in their day to day lives. The hardware (mobile, tablet, laptop, desktop) has reached a point where it’s increasingly less important than the actual services people are interacting with. And the expectation is that those services are available wherever there’s an Internet connection.

Of course, your trusty IT department play a HUGE part in ensuring you can access your work anywhere. But as more and more services migrate out to the cloud, there’s less to administer in house and less that can go wrong on the user end of the equation.

In the last ten years I have witnessed a huge bump in general computer literacy. I fully expect new generations of staff to be very comfortable with Google-ing their own problems and fixing their own stuff.

The cold hard truth is the average in-house IT team are rapidly losing relevance in their current guise.

The problem is we’ve been saddled with the role of gatekeepers of change for far too long. If any part of the organisation wanted to do things differently, it has to work with IT to map out the processes, scope the project, procure a system and implement it. Great right? We’re valuable!

Whilst it’s lovely to be needed – it also creates a bottleneck. It’s not unusual for an IT department to run with somewhere between 5 and 10 projects simultaneously on top of day to day activities. And they just keep stacking on top of each other as the year progresses. Constant time slicing between complex tasks slows everything down to a crawl. In turn this makes the organisation less responsive and less able to change course when required.

Course correction is more important than perfection.
– IBM CIO Jeff Smith

I think it’s time for IT to relinquish control. We need to start looking for technology leaders outside the four walls of our departments and take a far more collaborative approach. Let’s have the confidence to make information freely available and co-author solutions together rather than unwittingly imposing decisions and limiting options.

Working within rigid hierarchies just isn’t going to cut it going forward. IT spending is dropping and IT teams are typically under resourced. We simply cannot hold back the floodgates of change. It’s time to decentralise IT and tap into resources across the breadth of the organisation to surface real technical challenges that need addressing now.

By adapting the role of IT to one of innovation and learning delivery (rather than just purely service delivery) we immediately extend our shelf life AND provide a far better platform for change to our organisations.

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You want Innovation? Learn to love failure!

Innovation – a huge buzzword that has been doing the rounds increasingly for the last year or so. Technology is driving change at such a rapid pace that organisations are looking to embrace a ‘culture of innovation’ in order to be more responsive. But what does that actually mean?

In order to innovate, you need ideas. Where do these ideas come from? Traditionally the appraisal process (where line manager reviews staff performance and sets objectives) should bring ideas out into the open and get them into the business plan. In terms of sourcing ideas that are truly revolutionary that doesn’t seem to happen.

Why is that? Is it because people are not able to generate ideas ‘on demand’ during that yearly mandated period? Is it because organisational hierarchies subject anything new or challenging to ‘death by committee’? Is it because we’ve been fed a steady diet of risk aversion since the beginning of time? Is it because fluid innovation and rigid business strategy are almost opposing concepts?

I’m fortunate enough to work in a progressive organisation that is trying to make strides in these areas. But any organisation that has a rigid hierarchical structure will suffer from some or all of these road blocks to adopting a culture of innovation. It is a symptom of our workplaces being designed to tackle predictable tasks in an increasingly unpredictable world.

Let’s be really clear though, innovation is no magic wand. It is actually an inherently wasteful process that’s jam packed with failure. Even if you subscribe to a ‘fast failure’ model where you iterate rapidly through different decisions and directions you’re still working on projects that may never come to fruition.

However, we’re deluding ourselves if we pretend that there’s no failure in our normal working lives. We fail all the time, large and small, but most people have gotten good at mitigating it, spinning it or burying it. That’s a shame because we only really learn how to change things for the better when we can understand what went wrong.

So, what’s more desirable? – An intensive period of controlled failure that will deliver some valuable data in terms of what not to do. Or to continue on as we are, applying bandages to failing systems and processes and pretend that everything is okay.

Unfortunately, innovation is not just something that can be turned on like a tap. People need a sandbox in which to play and develop ideas without the crippling pressure to generate results. The key is to keep the invested resource (be that time or money) to an absolute minimum to start with. Fail fast, document your findings, move on to the next iteration or idea. Speed is essential. If you assume that 90% of the concepts you evaluate are destined to be shelved, you need to work your way through the chaff to get to the wheat as rapidly as possible. Even the chaff has a use. Imagine how valuable a few months worth of discarded ideas would be? Can you see any commonalities? Are we trying to do something we’ve already done before? Will this idea work now that external factors have changed?

Much of this thinking comes from the Silicon Valley start-up scene where small teams of developers try to capture the next technological zeitgeist before anyone else. The methodologies of Agile development are finding their way into mainstream thinking. Much of it is common sense. Build a minimum viable product (a workable prototype that has the core features) and release it. If it’s a success, iterate and build on top of what you’ve got. For those startups working long hours with meager initial funding, the key is to get to a functional product to market with as little resource wasted as possible before anyone else. That sounds pretty desirable no matter what sector you’re in huh?

Obviously, most organisations don’t have the luxury of a department dedicated to the pursuit of innovation. But in truth, I think it should be part of everyone’s job description to make it happen. It can’t radiate from one corner of the business or be demanded from the top. People need the time, authority and framework to go and experiment.

In order for any of this to work the stigma around failure needs to go. All the greatest innovators are prolific failures. What separates them from others is that they push forward and keep learning from their mistakes in search of a greater understanding. In essence, this is the sort of culture we need to start baking into organisations (particularly the public & third sector) to unleash that stored potential for creative problem solving in staff which is otherwise largely untapped.