Digital Infusion: Reimagining IT

IT is in crisis. We’ve become the Department of No, of Slow, of Expensive, of Inadequate, of Misaligned. We’re told we need to drive innovation, to become more service-oriented, to cut costs and improve quality and increase agility all at once. I believe that this crisis goes beyond just how we do things. It touches the very definition of what we do and is reflected in what we call ourselves.

“Information Technology” makes me think of mini-computers in the basement controlling giant continuous-form printers noisily spitting out reams of inventory reports. The idea that we are in the business of information is obsolete. The days of Management Information Systems are behind us. No longer does our job consist of extracting information for managers to use to make decisions. Digital experience has become woven into the warp and woof of corporate existence. In order to remain relevant, and valuable, IT needs to transform itself into something else.

On the one hand, work still happens in the physical realm. I drive to work, walk to my office, chat around the water cooler, hand my coworker a printed document, attend a meeting in a meeting room, draw with a marker on a whiteboard. On the other hand, I use Google Maps on my phone to navigate while driving, chat around the virtual Yammer water cooler, email the document to my coworker, attend the meeting on Skype, and co-edit drawings in Google Docs.

One might claim that the digital realm is replacing the physical. Even in a virtual workplace, though, I still chat, share, read, write, talk, and draw. Work still consists of humans engaging with each other to create value. Whether you’re sitting in an office, or a coffee shop, or your kitchen, you’re still sitting somewhere, and communicating and collaborating with, or selling to and supporting, other people who are also sitting someplace.

In an excellent article, Bernard Golden defines the role of IT as “enabling computing to be performed on behalf of the larger company.” Bernard’s definition of IT as an enabler is excellent and worthy of contemplation. The issue is that computing is no longer a separate activity ‘to be performed on behalf of’ anyone. It’s risen to the level of a pervasive quality that infuses physical work. Products and activities have taken on a physio-digital nature. Is a Cadillac with OnStar and Pandora a car, or an online software service? Yes. What about an office-building thermostat that sends data back to the vendor’s IT systems, and uses analytics from those systems to optimize temperature and humidity control?

In the current world, a company’s ability to function at all requires seamless digital infusion. To make a simple phone call with a ‘regular’ telephone, I need the LAN and the VoIP server to work. Beyond that, I should be able to search my contact list from my phone no different than from my email client.

Digital infusion goes beyond internal enterprise functions. Corporate interaction with customers has also become physio-digital. Outbound marketing and customer support blend with each other, and with Twitter and Facebook. In turn, support personnel responds to online complaints by promising to call customers and resolve their problems voice-to-voice.

The Cadillac/OnStar example is a case of a company going even further and enabling digital infusion on its customers’ behalf. When people talk about IT needing to drive innovation, I believe that ‘customer digital-infusion services’ like OnStar, or like the Big Data-augmented HVAC controller, are exactly the kind of thing they’re talking about.

IT needs to do more than make itself more agile and aligned by embracing BYOD, or CoIT, or cloud. We need to understand our role in supporting companies’ very existence. We need to revisit our basic mission. I believe that that this mission consists of enabling companies to improve outcomes by infusing physical spaces, activities, and relationships with digital ones. Then we need to take the next step and revisit what we call ourselves. To fully transform ‘Information Technology’ we should stop calling it by that name.

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