On a recent speaking tour in New Zealand, I had a weekend of downtime. So a friend graciously invited me to stay with her and her husband and take in some of the sights. As we drove toward her house she said, "Some great friends of ours will be joining us for dinner tonight. They’re local dairy farmers."
"Oh, great," I thought. "What in the world will I have to talk about with a dairy farmer?"
As it turned out, they were great people and we hit it off. But inevitably, the topic of work came up. "So, Charlie, what do you do for a living?" he asked.
"I work with technology," I said, figuring that it was probably best if I kept things simple.
"Oh, technology," he said and paused. I was sure he was trying to figure out how to change the subject.
"Yeah, we couldn’t do anything without our technology. Do you know that thanks to automation, I can manage my entire herd of 500 cattle with only three people?"
I was speechless.
"All of my cattle have GPS trackers and RFID tags," he continued. "The milking process is completely automated. We track how much each cow eats, whether it’s sick or healthy, how much milk it’s producing, and everything else that we need to effectively manage the herd."
I’m sure I looked like a complete idiot, just staring at him with this dumbfounded look on my face. We spent the better part of an hour talking about how technology was integral to every part of his business and how he simply could not function without it.
Despite all of my advisory work, writing, and speeches on the future of IT, I don’t think that it had really hit me until that moment. We’re truly living in a different time. Our world has been digitally disrupted.
The Digitally Disrupted World
My run-in with this cool dairy farmer only reinforced the importance and reality of what I was in New Zealand to speak about: digital disruption.
We’re living in a world in which virtually everything has been changed—disrupted, you might say—by the integration of technology into nearly every facet of life. Technology is now at the center of our professional and personal lives. While there are exceptions, for most of us, it’s difficult to think of a situation in which technology doesn’t in some way influence how we live and act on a daily basis.
We’ve become completely dependent on technology. Next time you’re at a party or social gathering, try this fun parlor game. Pick any activity you can think of and see how many ways technology is used to enable it or conduct it in some way. I’m willing to bet that you won’t be able to find a single activity that doesn’t use technology in some way.
In historic terms, this transformation has happened at light speed. But on a personal level, it’s happened slowly enough over the last twenty years or so that most of us haven’t realized the depth and breadth of the transformation. In part, this is because while technology has infiltrated everything, our social structures have remained stubbornly rooted in industrial-era artifices.
Our organizational, institutional, and governmental structures look much as they did at the turn of the last century. Despite the rush of social networking and the idea of "borderless business," most of our business and social structures are still hierarchical in nature and based on physical proximity. The digital age may have begun fifteen years ago, but from an organizational and operational perspective, most businesses, institutions, and governments don’t seem to have noticed.
Slowly, we’re seeing these artifices break down and fall apart. One Fortune 500 firm sold off its corporate headquarters and moved all corporate staff into a few floors of a high-rise in which no one, including the CEO, has an office. Another is closing down its landmark headquarters building, relocating their employees to home offices and organizing them into collaborative work units. A multibillion-dollar healthcare firm is experimenting with forming new service teams that combine functional units from across the enterprise, realizing that they cannot continue working in their silos and stay relevant.
Smaller companies, such as Zappos and Valve, are taking more radical approaches. They’re flattening their organizational structures completely. Zappos made news when it announced that it was eliminating all management, but it was far from the first company to try this. Companies such as Morning Star and W.L. Gore have been proving that these models work for more than twenty years.
Powered by technology, the walls of the industrial age are coming down and we’re finally entering the digital age for real. And as we do, we’re finding that the rules have changed.
The Contradictions of the New World
Have you ever walked into a dark room and stumbled over a piece of furniture? You walk in with some assumptions about how the room is laid out, but you find things aren’t where you expected them to be.
The transition to the digital age is a little bit like that dark room. We’ll encounter contradictions that will make us question our expectations of how things should work.
The first of these contradictions is the fact that, while technology will continue to become more and more ubiquitous, IT will actually handle less and less of it. IT organizations are already struggling to keep up with the explosion of devices entering the organization. Smart IT organizations will begin to rapidly shed control over any technology that does not add strategic, differentiating value to the organization. It will be the only pathway to survival. And it means that the fundamental ways in which the IT organization operates will shift.
At the same time, as technology continues to become more ubiquitous and consumerized, customer expectations will demand that technology interfaces become more and more simple. Ease of use, intuitiveness of interface, and frictionless interoperability of systems will become ever more important—and any technology that doesn’t deliver will be discarded. Yet, underneath the proverbial covers, the complexity of those systems will continue to increase exponentially. This will set up a massive conflict as consumers perceive technology to be simple and therefore get increasingly frustrated when that simple technology fails to work properly (or fast enough), while the underlying technologies become more difficult to create, maintain, and support.
Finally, the rules of business themselves will begin to change as businesses attempt to reorganize themselves into more agile, more adaptable business models. At the same time, risk mitigation and economies of scale will continue to demand that the largest companies get even larger. This will give rise to the "Movie Studio Business Model," in which the largest enterprises effectively become insurance companies, landlords, and integrators, bringing together vast collections of smaller companies to develop new products, deliver them to the market, and then disband and start over again. This contradiction between the need for the attributes of both large, risk mitigating organizations and the need for small, agile, and adaptable organizations will put tremendous pressure on IT to operate in this complex, rapidly changing business environment.
The Future of Support in a Digitally Disrupted World
If you’re an IT support professional, this vision of the near future may have you a bit concerned. What will these changes mean for support organizations and the support professionals who run them? The answer comes in three parts, and it is both cautionary and hopeful.
1. One support organization for the organization
If you see yourself an "IT person," you might want to start rethinking that identity. As technology becomes ubiquitous and is increasingly managed outside of IT, the IT function will cease to be viewed as a support organization. Instead, support for the organization’s critical and strategic technology infrastructure will fall to a separate, holistic technology support organization. The internal IT organization will simply be one of its supported technology suppliers, along with a wide variety of independent technology companies, cloud providers, and outsourcers that are providing technology services directly to the organization or its customers. While the support organization may or may not report into IT, its purview and operational scope will be, by definition, much larger than the services that IT provides directly.
In many ways, this will be a good thing. Through a universal technology support team, the organization will be able to protect its vast technology investments and ensure that it’s receiving the greatest value for its expenditures. But the transition to independence from IT will be difficult. The fundamental relationship between technology support and IT will have to change, and for many, that will take some adjustment.
2. From self-service to enablement
The nature of support itself is also going to change. In the beginning, your customers didn’t know how anything worked. Today, our consumers are much more sophisticated. They require little to no hand-holding, and they’re comfortable provisioning, troubleshooting, and supporting their own equipment—and becoming more and more comfortable by the day. The transition to self-service is a response to this trend. Increasingly, customers don’t want support as much as they want access to information that enables them to solve their own problems and a rapid mechanism for requesting support for things they can’t handle themselves.
But while self-service is now an expectation (despite the fact that so many IT organizations are still having trouble making this transition), it’s not the end of the story. As the world of IT shifts, new demands far beyond support or self-service will be placed on the technology support team. There will be technology everywhere and it will be able to do almost anything. More than traditional support, your customers will be looking for you to help them make sense of it all so that they can invest in the technologies that will be of most value to them. This will require support to have an intimate understanding of each customer’s business needs and demands. Organizations will need to be able to articulate their customers’ unmet and even unstated needs in a way that enables them to help customers select the most effective technology solutions. Fulfilling this mission will likely demand that support professionals become specialized in specific industry segments.
3. Support as a competitive differentiator
More than anything, the new era for IT organizations will fundamentally change the perceived value of the technology support team itself. Let me ask you a question: How important is your mechanic to you? Would you classify that person as "critical" to your existence? Probably not.
Even if you have a regular mechanic, you probably don’t think about him or her unless your car needs some maintenance or something breaks down on your car. There’s really no reason to do otherwise.
But let me ask you another question: How important do you think a pit crew is to a professional race team? Pretty critical, right? A good pit crew can make the difference between winning or losing a close race—and, in fact, it often does. Yes, the car and the driver are also critical components, but the pit crew and its training and techniques can absolutely be a competitive differentiator for a winning race team. And yet, the work of your mechanic and the work of a pit crew are pretty much the same.
Up until now, technology support has been a lot like being your neighborhood mechanic: important, but only something to think about when you needed maintenance or when something broke. But we’re in a transitional period in which technology support teams are going to become a lot more like pit crews. As organizations race to differentiate themselves through their myriad technology investments (and how they interweave them), the effectiveness of their support organizations will become a source of competitive differentiation. As the technology becomes more complex and interconnected, it won’t matter how advantageous that technology is to their market position if either it doesn’t work properly or their teams don’t know how to leverage it. Like a winning pit crew, it will be up to the support organization to ensure that just the right amount of support is provided at just the right time to ensure the team wins the race.
I opened The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT Is About to Change with the line, "IT as we know it is dead." I wasn’t sure how readers would react to what I assumed would be a controversial statement. Yet, what I heard most often from people all over the world instead was, "Yep, Charlie, IT is dead. So where do we go from here?"
There’s little doubt that everything is changing. The fallout from the transition to the digital age will be felt far and wide, but perhaps nowhere more than support organizations.
As a support professional, you need to prepare yourself for upheaval and change. Organizations will struggle mightily through this transition. You can count on that. But this transition will also create a wealth of opportunities. First, it will provide an opportunity for you to step up and lead. Second, it will offer you an opportunity to deliver meaningful value in an organizational context, stepping outside the shadow of the larger IT organization. Most importantly, it will provide you with an opportunity to have a dramatic impact on the business. The question is only whether or not you will accept and embrace this change and your new role or whether you will resist it, clinging to the way things have always been. The choice is simple, but the consequences will be significant. The future is bright and hopeful for those who lead us into this future. I hope you’re one of them.
Charles Araujo is a recovering consultant and accidental author of
The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT Is About to Change
. He is the founder and CEO of the IT Transformation Institute and serves on the boards of itSMF USA and the Executive Next Practices Institute. An internationally recognized authority on IT leadership, Charles is a regular contributor to CIO Insight and InformationWeek, and he has been quoted in or published in Time, CIO, CIO&Leader, ZDNet, IT Business Edge, ITSM Portal, TechRepublic, SupportWorld, Computerworld, USA Today, and Forbes. Follow him at @charlesaraujo.