The nature of business today is changing. Bits are replacing atoms. Online is supplanting face-to-face. Virtual is superseding physical. The World Economic Forum calls this change “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” and says it will “fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another.” 

Most of us know this shift as the “digital transformation” and recognize that it “reshapes every aspect of business” according to Forbes. The foundation of this shift is Information Technology (IT), and it requires a fundamental rethinking of the role of IT within the larger organization. 

In the past, IT’s role was clear: support the business. IT was expected to develop applications to help groups like sales, finance, and operations perform their duties. Today, IT infuses the products and services that make up the digital economy. IT is a core component of these offerings and must be part of the team that creates and takes them to market. I characterize this role shift as “IT’s role used to be: support the business. Now it is: be the business.” In short, IT must undergo its own digital transformation to support the larger business transformation. 

Here are a few areas where IT must change its game to meet the requirements of its new role:

A New Application Lifecycle Approach

Clearly, the pace of application development needs to accelerate. Too many IT organizations, mired in heavyweight processes like Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL), find themselves unable to meet the demands of the digital economy.

Agile development is often an initial foray that application groups use to speed up development. Operations groups often embrace DevOps to enable more frequent deployments that require less manual effort.

The reality is that both are necessary and both should be part of the new application lifecycle. As the following diagram illustrates, both have agile development and DevOps to play a role in the new lifecycle, along with cloud computing and integrated business and IT collaboration.

Every part of the application lifecycle must be streamlined to achieve digital capabilities. Fixing one aspect of the application lifecycle without addressing the entirety just means that one group will operate at digital speed while the others continue their traditional pace -- without overall improvement in speed.

Welcome to The World of IoT

Five years ago, most IT organizations targeted one client device for their applications: a web browser. That monolithic approach started to break down with the release of the iPhone and the rise of smartphones as primary computing devices. 

Today, the explosion of new edge computing means IT organizations need to support a wide variety of devices. Their form factors vary wildly, depending upon their role and function. This trend is only going to accelerate as devices go through their own Cambrian Explosion. Five or ten years from now, IT personnel will look back fondly at the days in which their biggest challenge was finding a Javascript framework that offered cross-browser capability.

Real-time Event Processing

Many IoT devices throw off data in unpredictable patterns based on the characteristics of the environment in which they operate. This means data arrives erratically and applications must be able to ingest and process data in real time. 

The new application paradigm for this requirement is “functions as a service” or, more succinctly, serverless. The large cloud providers all offer serverless capabilities along with frameworks that simplify delivering event data to serverless functions.

This category of application is going to grow dramatically as the previously-discussed IoT revolution gets bigger and bigger. 

Data Warehousing Becomes Machine Learning

Millions of devices and billions of events means that storing, structuring, and analyzing data is a critical competence for IT organizations. 

The scale, speed, and nature of this data mean that the old method of analytics, based on the extraction of data into a separate relational data warehouse, is no longer sufficient. Furthermore, business units need to respond much more rapidly to data analysis which means end user analytical tools that can drill down into event stream data are necessary.

The new approach to analysis is called machine learning, and it’s based on applying algorithms to massive amounts of data to extract patterns and make predictions. It’s a very different approach to performing analysis and has made the job of a data scientist just about the hottest IT specialization going

This leads us back to cloud computing because only the very biggest cloud providers can deliver the infrastructure scale necessary for the data volumes required by machine learning.

The bottom line regarding all these new technologies is that the nature of IT is morphing and IT organizations need to build new skills to prepare for the digital world. Too many IT organizations hope that their existing staff will transform themselves into a digitally-enabled workforce. Other IT organizations place their aspirations on the belief that they can hire their way to digital competence.

The truth is that neither approach will do the job. Most IT organizations will need to rely on existing staff to implement their digital initiatives, but they don’t have time to wait for magical self-transformation. 

Smart IT organizations will develop a comprehensive training program designed to quickly build digital skills. A digitally-savvy workforce is a bedrock of participating in today’s revolution, and IT organizations ignore staff education at their peril.

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