Friday, May 28, 2004

Has IT lost its strategic advantage?

Just had to comment on this story posted on /. today.

Today, IT has more potential for strategic advantage than it has in a long time. Hardware is cheap, networks are mature and there is a *lot* of Open Source software free for the taking. So, what is the problem?

The problem is threefold:

- many folks today think they can spend their way out of a problem instead of working through it,

- software companies know this and cater to that at the expense of everyone else,

- many fail to consider the process related nature of their problems and end up brute force automating their poor processes with bland software following well established trends.

Just about everyone computing today is on the upgrade treadmill. If you happen to be using closed proprietary software, which most of us are, most of your spending happens to fuel the upgrade process. The problem with this approach happens to lie in the nature of regular upgrade schedules. The pressure to provide regular releases is the same pressure that prevents the application from truly evolving as it could potentially do. Instead we get lots of quick fix type features intended to show value and improve the application in ways that easily justify the dollars spent year over year on improvements. The result being that we have huge applications today whose core functionality has changed little, if at all, over time. Do these features really address core problems, or do they simply make dealing with an existing solution better/easier/more fun somehow?

In most cases, I don't think they do. All of this spending and upgrading does sharply limit the number of people you can put directly on a problem. Instead of people who know your business, you end up paying for a small amount of the software producers people time in the hopes their general case solution better fits your business needs. (Not terribly likely.)

Here is a simple case to present my ideas in context.

Word processing.

Comparing early versions of Microsoft Word with later versions is interesting in that most of the features address very specific problems with the core word processing solution put forth years ago. Some features, such as the spell check and grammar check, do provide some real improvements, but all in all it is safe to say Microsoft Word is still Microsoft Word. The solution is a more refined one today compared to a few years ago, but the core problems still remain. People still have to open files, type stuff, decide how it should look, save them, and print them. This basic process brings with it all the problems inherent in file based systems today. (Locating files, overwriting important files, corrupt files, etc...) The same can be said for printing and formatting tasks as well.

How does this relate to strategic advantage?

The first on the block to make use of word processors enjoyed a significant advantage over those that didn't. Over time as more people joined the bandwagon, that advantage has diminished because everyone now has the same toolset. Ironically, those that could take advantage of the gains paid the most for the option of doing so through the upgrade cycles. Hopefully, this extra expense and time translated into bigger marketshare or some other similar core business gain for them.

Does this mean that IT no longer matters? Not at all. IT users today can still enjoy significant advantage over their peers today in the following ways:

- reduce overall IT cost (Open Source, Extended Upgrade cycle, Resource Management),

- address core issues (File Management, Printing, Automation)

- re-evaluate both process and toolset to improve productivity.

Business today should be asking these kinds of questions:

"Does everybody need a word processor?"

"How can be better manage our data?"

"Can we improve our process with different tools or procedures that depend less on current tools and methods?" Put another way: "How can I make my people, not only work faster, but better as well?"

"Do the advantages other environments and methods available today outweigh the traditional advantages common toolsets provide today given the emergence of Open Standards for communication?" -- "Maybe my process is unique enough to warrant a specific tool for the job..."

"How can I better leverage the networked and multi-user computing environments in my process to improve productivity and reduce errors?"

You are not going to find the answers to a lot of these questions in a new software box. Open Source tools are not going to provide easy answers either, so what will?

Invest in people who understand the complex nature of both your business and the technology available today --all of it. Give these people the funds and authority necessary to map your existing processes to potential technology solutions. Then let them build it out of the tools that make sense for your enterprise and needs.

My overall message here is to fight the trends. The safe buy won't get anyone canned, but also won't gain you any advantage either. There is no free lunch. Either you are paying to use a one size fits all solution, or you pay to form your own. A smart investment in people who can take advantage of all technologies, both proprietary and open, will yield over time just the right solutions to your problems.

It's a safe bet their ideal solution won't come in a box, and that speaks to the core of the problem inherent in IT today. Perhaps this will change as people begin to really wake up and understand the problems inherent in one size fits all closed software solutions.

Here is another simple way to look at it. When manufacturing firms want to gain the upper hand and distinguish themselves from others, what do they do? Buy better machines? Sure, but they also look hard at their process year after year to learn how it can be improved. They also build their own custom solutions to tough problems when called for. Why aren't IT people doing the same? It seems simple really.

Before paying again and again for the same software box year after year, consider a real investment in people who can learn to understand your business and relate that to technology. There are an awful lot of smart people out of work right now that would gladly help improve what you are doing year after year with your interests firmly in mind given the chance.

There is more than closed packaged software out there free for the taking, why not let somebody put it to work for you and your business and begin to gain some real advantage over those who choose to continue to pay for the same box year after year...


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