No time for shrinking violets

In the pecking order of IT organizations, infrastructure usually comes dead last. The operational types essentially are told what to do.

An application might be an operational nightmare in the way it is packaged and delivered, and it might be easier to back up or manage some platforms than others. The people in IT infrastructure handle it. But in most organizations, infrastructure's experience and knowledge are overlooked.

It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that most infrastructure managers keep their heads down and their noses clean. When you feel disempowered, you quickly act disempowered.

If this weren't bad enough, infrastructure is facing a huge challenge in outsourcing. (My point isn't that you shouldn't outsource. Outsourcing infrastructure -- under the right contract -- can make excellent business sense.)

One of the long-term goals of the consumers of IT was that IT would eventually get to be as easy to use as electricity from the energy company: just plug in and consume. All the gory details would be hidden behind one authentication; things would at last be simple. With the rise of software as a service and other initiatives in recent years, that promise is getting closer.

In companies where the people in IT infrastructure are perceived as outright roadblocks to change, the outsourcing threat is imminent. But even when the relationship is less frosty, as it is in most cases, there is still no perception that a lot of value is being added by the infrastructure group. Why not just ship the whole thing out to a professional and start getting some of those "utility" benefits a little sooner?

Despite all this, in some ways times have never been more promising for infrastructure. But seizing the day will require assertive, confident and thoughtful behaviours that have mostly been driven out.

Here's an example of how taking a chance could pay off. A new CIO was taking over at one of my clients, and when he asked for some numbers, he discovered that nearly 90 percent of IT spending was tied up in running and maintaining what existed. Now suppose the director of infrastructure had anticipated this and therefore had some financial analysis at his fingertips. He'd be ready to explain the financial advantages of platform consolidation and could pinpoint possible replacements and upgrades that could chip away at operating costs. He'd know which applications drive up skill costs and the contractor base and which ones cost a lot to operate because of all the program products required to keep them going. Such a "hit list" of wins -- and a chart showing probable investments required to reach various levels of running costs and their payback periods -- might finally allow some of the things that bedevil infrastructure to be fixed.

Another of my clients, after repeated problems with its architecture group, is now getting involved in the architectural process. Things still aren't perfect -- there's a learning curve for both sides -- but now some of the concerns in infrastructure are being addressed, and infrastructure has more powerful allies helping to bring home the dollars required to fix things.

Infrastructure doesn't need to be a backwater. Even if you are going to outsource it, cleaning house first is just good business; outsourcing a mess just locks in the cost structure of the mess. Outsourced infrastructure adds no zing; added value happens at contracting time. Either way, why not add value in infrastructure?

Bruce Stewart is a former CEO and onetime senior VP and director of executive services at Meta

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