How may a big company act as small businesses?

IT Bad Boy Nicholas Carr, whose book “IT Doesn’t Matter” enraged big company technology folks to no end a few years ago, is back again. This time, he says the IT department is dead in his book “The Big Switch.” But you may already be using the exact model he says will appear in the future.

Of course, if you’re a small business without a “proper” IT department, this may seem funny. You’re actually the envy of Carr in some ways, since business decisions drive every technology purchase and process. He’s worried that when you get larger, you’ll flip that around and let technology dictate the business processes, like the big companies do.

Carr predicts IT people will either merge into business groups within their company or disappear. This will happen because big companies will give up their huge data centers and trust all their business department technology needs to Software-as-a-Service applications and on-demand storage hosted somewhere online. No data center, no need for an IT department. The “cloud” will become your data center.

Yeah, and pigs will fly. Coordinating data between departments using the same data center takes far too much time and effort now, and spreading that data out across the Internet will complicate the process another tenfold. But the idea that IT people should be inside and support specific business departments makes a huge amount of sense. So much common sense, in fact, very few big businesses do it that way today.

Carr’s holy grail for this diatribe seems to be Google. Companies will switch their data processing efforts from their own data centers to Google-like data centers, much like Thomas Edison’s centralized power stations convinced businesses to stop generating their own electricity and trust the power company.

Good luck with that, Nick. My take away from all this vitriol is the disbanding of IT as a separate and sacrosanct department and the distribution of technical employees to the business units. This makes great sense as a model for small and growing companies, but won’t work with existing big companies.

First of all, idiot vice presidents infect every department. Can we blame New Coke on IT? Nope.

Second, coordinating IT processes and data consolidation across a big company requires specialists, and those specialists are the IT people. Disbanding IT means it’s every department for itself in technology, and they’ll face worse integration issues than IT does today.

But small to medium companies that have yet to be infected with idiot vice presidents can follow this idea to embed smart technologists inside business units rather than separating them into their own group. This helps, but doesn’t guarantee, that business ideas come before technology.

Each business unit will go through their own Task-Process-Tools analysis. If the answer says more technology is needed, the technical specialist for that department connects with technical specialists from the other departments. This ensures the technology acquired fits both the technology policy in the company and still provides the service needed by the department. Rather than an IT “department” you have a cross-department IT team. That may look just like an IT department, but the underlying philosophy differs greatly. Departments define their needs, and the IT team works together, if necessary, to make it happen.

There’s still plenty of control and oversight when you start this process from the beginning. The IT team defines the tool specifics available to the departments. Your company may buy all your computers from Dell, or HP, or Apple, or the shop down the road, so when departments decide to add a computer, they don’t reinvent that technical wheel. Need a spreadsheet? Here’s what’s on the IT shelf. Need a database development package? Got it ready. Need to define a different database application to serve the needs of a particular task? Design away.

Big companies have too much inertia and too many turf wars to follow this model. The very fact that your company is able to keep departments coordinated and groups working together stamps you as a small or medium business.

But hold your head up high, because your small business technology processes are ahead of the curve. Multi-national conglomerates are scrambling to catch up to the process first, technology second guidelines you have in place already. Nobody said big companies have the corner on common sense, especially not Nicholas Carr.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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