Commoditized IT? Don't Believe It!

IT managers must understand that the most strategic technologies are seldom commodities.

November 12, 2004

2 Min Read
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Complexity Rules

It's true that throughout the 1990s, many IT organizations focused too much on the "T" and not nearly enough on the "I." Repeating a practice from the mainframe-centric 1960s, IT managers often alienated their internal customers by making questionable strategic decisions and then executing poorly on system implementation and support.

As PCs and the Internet hit the mainstream, the CIO's organizational peers began to think of IT as a commodity, and the once-respected technical experts were ridiculed. Management theorist Peter Drucker drew a parallel to printing-press technicians of the 18th century, whose societal status and compensation degraded as their technical expertise became more of a commodity. But this comparison failed to acknowledge that information technology was actually increasing in complexity--rapidly--with no end in sight.

Look around and you'll see a world of specialists. IT pros who have mastered the magic of storage technology often know little about mobile and wireless. In security, the disparity is even more pronounced, with intrusion-detection gurus pleading ignorant to the complexity of graded authentication services. Yes, the markets for notebook computers and Ethernet NICs have commoditized, but the rest of the industry still looks pretty damn complex.

Wireless MicrocosmI spend much of my time these days tracking the technology and business of mobile and wireless. When I talk to IT managers, I am struck by their lack of knowledge about the underlying technology. We've seen this consistently in reader surveys, where respondents acknowledge that some emerging standard is strategic, but they can't explain why. They may have a Wi-Fi network at home, but when you talk about complex system design, implementation and management issues ranging from scalability to security to integration, they're at a loss.

With this reality as a context, how do IT managers make strategic decisions about technology? Nobody disagrees that they need to focus on the business value of information rather than on the technology itself, and to develop their communications, team-building and project-management skills. But they must also understand that the most strategic technologies are seldom commodities.

In today's successful IT organizations, the executives surround themselves with smart technical specialists. This new breed of technical manager combines business and technical acumen. He or she can grill a savvy salesman and his technical marketing engineer as they pitch the organization on their latest product or managed service.

All IT organizations need people who can select the right technologies for their companies from the vast array of alternatives, and then get the job done. It's this package of technical and management skills that will define future success.

Dave Molta is Network Computing's senior technology editor. Write to him at [email protected].1022

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