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Questions left unanswered

 I always welcome a fresh perspective, especially when it comes from professionals that know more about a topic than I do. But sometimes a new perspective can be challenging, and it can raise uncomfortable questions that might be painful to consider.

So to get my latest dose of perspective, I spent my Wednesday in Cambridge attending the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, listening as panels of CEOs shared their thoughts and visions of technology with the CTOs, CIOs and other technology professionals in attendance.

Many of the discussions carried common themes, often touching on migration to the cloud and the shifts needed to embrace a more mobile (in fact a more global) workforce. IT figured prominently in those discussions, and CEOs extolled the virtues of agility, efficiency, cost savings and service quality improvements that they expected. Ultimately, the perception of IT must be steered away from implementing systems and supporting applications. Instead, IT should focus on providing business services to employees and users faster, easier and cheaper.

At first blush, it makes a lot of sense. IT won’t serve a business well if it retains its traditional silos and separations. The move to cloud technologies requires a shift in attitudes, along with new IT skillsets and roles, such as “cloud architects.” Cloud migration affects everything from networks to servers to storage to applications to users. And there are also numerous problems with cloud technologies that still need to be overcome, including concerns about security, performance, regulatory compliance and privacy, and ways to manage an unfathomable ocean of unstructured data.

When I started thinking about the long-term implications for IT in the enterprise, I realized that some important questions were not addressed. With all of these changes – now and on the horizon – how can IT and its professionals preserve their relevance in a modern business environment? Can IT keep a place at the table, helping shape and direct the future success of the enterprise, or is IT relegated to a fate as a line item destined for perpetual budget-cutting, along with printing costs and corporate travel expenses?

IT and technology practitioners do have a meaningful role in tomorrow’s enterprise, but it’s not the traditional hardware/software deployment and support paradigm that we see today. Tomorrow’s IT must prove its value to the business by employing metrics. It might be a matter of measuring business growth attributable to IT, gauging improvements in customer/user satisfaction or some other yardstick.

But one of the most important ways that IT can remain relevant is by identifying new technologies that can enhance the business, performing the intensive reviews and due diligence needed to evaluate the suitability of new technology, and then shepherding the organization through the adoption and development of that new technology. Just consider how platforms like netbooks and smartphones are changing the way businesses operate today.

Okay, even the savviest CEO can’t precisely define the role and influence of tomorrow’s IT department. But one thing’s for sure — IT professionals won’t sweat about adding disks to storage arrays or upgrading memory modules. *

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