Monday, February 27, 2012

IT Managers are Becoming App Providers

Legacy, Cloud, Mobile, and Apps are Defining the New IT Landscape
‘Paradigm shift’ is a term that unfortunately in recent years has often been incorrectly used in relation to IT. This is a shame because if ever there was a paradigm shift, it is now, with cloud, mobile, and apps giving the IT landscape a completely different appearance to several years ago. With legacy no longer an obstacle, users are calling the shots. Who would have thought that just a couple of years ago?

In most organizations, IT is the department that makes infrastructure, hardware, and applications available for use. There has always been a discrepancy between the way in which the IT department fulfills this role and the demands of users for flexible, efficient, and effective IT assets. IT management has tended to implement a very rigid structure, primarily due to its concern about threats to security, such as malicious contaminations, corruption, and theft. I recently visited a very large consultancy organization, which sends employees to customers with tightly secured laptops on which they cannot access the settings or even change so much as the screensaver. The only thing they can access is the keyboard. When the laptop is switched on, it searches for a VPN connection and if it is unable to find one, it basically ceases to function. This policy is understandable from the viewpoint of an IT department, because it maintains their complete control. It does not, however, contribute—as it should—to better business processes that ultimately yield better material or immaterial results. Nevertheless, this is the situation in the year 2012.

App Store
The use of mobile IT is developing similarly to the way Windows for Workgroups developed. Microsoft’s expectation was that consumers who adopted Windows for Workgroups would bring it from their kitchen table into their business life.

The same is actually happening in mobile communication. Mobile phones were first used en masse by the consumer when the additional functionality of the smartphone was still limited to games and fun apps. But consumer behavior is changing: the smartphone has now become an indispensable medium for information. I recently came across the term ‘infomania’, the pathological search for information, which is beautifully described by two people sharing the same table in a restaurant but not interacting with each other, as they are completely focused on their phones. They just cannot leave their social network alone. Consumers bring this behavior to the work floor. They have already been defined by the well-known market research agencies, such as Gartner, IDC, and Forrester, as employees who walk around with a life remote control—their telephone. They have become used to receiving information in this manner and having smartphone functionality at their disposal. They expect the same at work, and they put pressure on IT management to realize this expectation.

The corporate mobile employee is making demands, such as: “If I have to take on this specific responsibility and carry out these tasks, you need to give me something useful on my phone or PDA that I can use to get the job done.” This is, in fact, a very favorable development for the IT department. It can provide employees with real and practical mobile functionality, while at the same time controlling the way in which the security of the mobile apps is managed. Employees will certainly respond well to this, and they will start to appreciate the IT department’s ability to simplify their work and life in general.

The IT department must make a transition to become a new IT discipline, ensuring that all legacy systems and data that need to be saved are brought into the cloud, while becoming an app provider for users. All of this will take place in a private app environment, in which the IT department controls all matters concerning security. In other words, life becomes easier and more enjoyable for the IT department as well.

Some will argue that the high status of the IT manager will change into that of a snack bar manager. I see this differently. The IT manager becomes the person who can most effectively deploy an organization’s application and information infrastructure for the users. A snack bar is not necessarily a negative reference in this case; some snack bars are of exceptionally good quality. If an employee wants to eat a hamburger, then he will function more effectively by eating a high quality hamburger than by eating one that has gone off.

Many users will say that they have a phone that is full of things that they could also use in their work. This needs to change, and it can be changed by getting the IT departments to deliver better quality apps that are adjusted to business applications. The IT department thus becomes a kind of App Store, specific to its own organization.

Apps obviously can also be used outside the organization. This fits very well with the concept of the customer-guided enterprise. Customers gain access to apps, through which the organization can serve them better and strengthen their relationship. This also has quite an impact on business processes. When customers see that an app has become available, they will, for instance, more or less stop filling in forms.

All of this requires internal adjustments.

Apps will also become available on the other side of the supply chain, which includes logistics and secondary suppliers. There will, therefore, be a clear distinction between internal apps—apps that employees use while performing their jobs—and apps that are available for both sides of a supply chain.

It is interesting to see how the future IT department will manage the quality of apps, and which procedures and protocols will be devised for introducing new apps to the organization and enabling access to them from outside the organization on both sides of the supply chain. For example, can Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) play a role in this?

No Obstacle
In the world of IT, legacy is a generic term for ‘everything that is already there’. The organization has become used, and often very attached, to these items. Legacy does not only refer to software and hardware; it also refers to primary business processes. Legacy is part of corporate culture. This is one of the main reasons why companies hesitate for a long time before entering the cloud, despite all its advantages both in terms of reduced costs and gained flexibility. (As an aside, it is important to take into consideration the fact that cloud computing has all of the characteristics of a vendor lock-in.)

Apps will resolve the legacy issues. In most organizations, applications for financial settlement are programmed in RPG and COBOL. This will remain the case for a long time to come, simply because everyone knows that they are truly bug-free. They will continue to run on machines that are specifically made for them. Large financial institutions can also force suppliers to keep providing machines on which they can continue to run their old software.

The current generation of integration software is perfectly capable of dissecting an application like SAP R/3 into specific functions, and bringing these functions to a mobile user in the form of an app, a technology that is already used via a cloud construction. In this way, legacy can also meet the current users’ requirements.

Legacy, therefore, does not have to be a burden to organizations. It only requires the division of the matter into parts that can be transferred to a developed application, which subsequently has direct access to the large, old, rooted system. Once you have made this division, you can technically reshape it. You must choose a platform that is capable of doing so, even in the case of very old legacy, written, for instance, in COBOL IDW. The platform must be able to absorb the legacy functionality and transform it into something that can be used in other ways and in other places, for example, as an app, on mobile devices, or in the cloud. Modern integration technologies do not require the eradication of legacy. An organization can, therefore, also participate in the progressive handling of business processes even with very old legacy.

A true app storm is raging worldwide. The changes have already been initiated by many IT departments, and I expect that the complete shift towards the new IT discipline will be achieved within three years. It will not be easy, but it is inevitable.

John Verwaaijen is the General Manager of Magic Software Benelux