I was thinking Monday morning about doing some development of features I wanted to add to the web application Don and I use to manage our gaming groups. Thinking about that got me thinking about how Facebook implements the “auto-search and link” feature for tagging in its interface. I wondered, briefly, whether anyone but a developer could really appreciate the intricacies of what’s going on under the covers to make that work. There’s a number of functions and events and scripts – server-side and client-side – that must all collaborate in real-time to make that work. There’s triggers and handlers in the client that need to capture input and query the server – and the database – and the insertion and the … well, it’s not nearly as easy as they make it look. But when you don’t know how that code works, and what it takes to make it look so effortless, can you really appreciate the effort and the value in it?
Then I happened to be reading the Internet and ran across a blog by Forrester analyst, Stephen Man, and that made me realize it isn’t just development – it’s any complex process that’s automated that can fall prey to being unappreciated and therefore undervalued.
Faced with the fact that consumer IT is now often perceived as both better and cheaper than corporate IT, and that business people are far more aware of third-party-provided alternatives, I have no doubt that CEOs will ask questions such as “how does our corporate email system compare with Google’s business email offering?”
That’s a good question and perhaps Stephen is right, we do need to answer such questions. But let’s not forget while answering those questions to include the hidden value inherent in most of IT’s increasingly complex data center systems. Because by hiding all that complexity under the hood –where stakeholders may be unaware of it and how important to the business it may be - IT has effectively shot itself in the foot.
“Consumer IT” with its easy to provision, easy to manage, clean and appealing interfaces may seem like a good value, even when distilling value down to a “per-message” or “per-gigabit managed” cost. But we cannot ignore the hidden factors when we compute the relative “costs” associated with “Corporate IT” versus “Consumer IT”, such as risk of non-compliance with regulations and loss of integration with back-office systems. Let’s consider e-mail for a moment, because Stephen rightly calls it out as one of the top applications oft mentioned in conversation regarding moving to “the cloud”.
The cost to manage per message is likely much cheaper using Google’s business e-mail offering than it is for IT to manage its own installation. But much of corporate e-mail systems’ value is hidden under the covers, largely to insulate business users from the need to worry about them. Retention policies, like many others related to monitoring (for zero-tolerance policies, for example) are automated and take place out of sight of business stakeholders. They need not worry about them, even though ultimately they may be held responsible for their proper execution should it become necessary. Corporate IT e-mail today is often integrated into Unified Communication systems and applications across the data center, making what might at first appear to be a simple change to be a nightmare in terms of costs to modify – if possible - applications.
It’s everything under the hood and in the data center; the interconnects, the policy automation, the process workflow orchestrations. These aspects of “corporate IT” are necessarily hidden from the eye of the beholder and, lacking insight into those factors, are often overlooked and their impact on stakeholders undervalued.
Indeed, as IT has attempted to provide seamless integration and automation that enhances productivity and the usability of corporate applications it has effectively shot itself in the foot with business stakeholders by hiding away the very complexity that is ultimately the source of value over and above the basic business function of the application. An old saying goes, “Out of sight, out of mind” and this is absolutely true in the enterprise. Hiding away the complexity from the user impacts the user only briefly, until they are comfortable with the “new way” of doing things and they forget how bad/inconvenient/frustrating it used to be. What business stakeholders today see is delay, costs, and in some cases an inhospitable land of technology within their own walls. That results in friction, and friction leads to discontent. What William Munro insightfully observed with respect to politics, is just as applicable in the enterprise: stakeholders aren’t necessarily interested in “consumer IT” because they’re for it, they’re more so expressing their discontent with “corporate IT”.
It is important, then, to ensure that the benefits of such integration and automation and the associated risk of losing both – in terms of fines as well as the potential loss of productivity caused by returning the burden of compliance to the user – be included in any valuation of “corporate IT”, especially when putting it against a comparable “consumer IT” offering. IT needs to be clear regarding the costs of what will inevitably be lost if business moves to a “consumer IT” offering and what the risks are. When answering Stephen’s later questions of “What extra value is gained by providing the email service internally?” and “Is that IT’s perception of value or “actual value” as agreed by key business stakeholders?” one must find a way to distill to “key business stakeholders” the value – operational, business, and even legal – inherent in regulatory compliance as well as integration, i.e. the value to applications that are, indirectly, of great value to the business.
IT should also share its strategy – at a high-level, of course – regarding the move toward IT-as-a-Service and even include business stakeholders in helping to define what that might look like in the future.
And when they say “Just make it like Gmail” try not to groan.
At least not audibly.