Forward-looking CIOs need to focus on app dev skewed toward mobile

App dev now is taking center stage because meeting customers' real-world information needs is not just nice, it's necessary to being able to compete.

“When was the last time you actually talked about a desktop application?” Michael Le Du asked with a laugh.

As chief technology officer at New York City-based Maxim magazine, Le Du spends a lot of time on app dev, and believes we're on the road to an app-centric world. While there is something to be said about the importance of the aforementioned desktop apps, they're not the highlight of the conversation.

More often than not, when you're reading or talking about an app, it's mobile, because that's really where all the activity is right now.

Experts and IT leaders believe the real business value in today's enterprise is being created at the application level -- be those apps employee-facing or consumer-facing. They also believe that in this information-on-demand era, those applications need to be part of a mobile strategy.

"Nowadays we use those terms, app and mobile app, almost synonymously," Le Du said. "More often than not, when you're reading or talking about an app, it's mobile, because that's really where all the activity is right now."

Real business value is at the app layer

Don't take it personally, but the business expects infrastructure and back-end systems like ERP just to be there, humming along in the background, doing their jobs. Such systems are nice -- and necessary -- but they aren't the systems that are adding business value, notes Mark Egan, CIO at Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware Inc. Apps that can help build and sell better products are what the business wants to see. "We, as CIOs, are going to focus on apps -- that's where we add the value," he said. "Mainstream CIOs need to be very involved in the business. And focusing on the application layer is one of the things we can do to help make our company more competitive, to get products out much faster, [and] to have a more intimate relationship with our customers."

For Egan, that value will be derived from a focus on customer relationship management (CRM) -- but with a mobile and social slant. "Give me my great experience at home, with seamless collaboration where I can reach out to people at my convenience," Egan said. "Bring that to me in the enterprise because that's how I want to operate."

CIOs' place in an app-centric world

How are CIOs faring when it comes to making waves in app dev? It's something of a work in progress. According to Gartner Inc. analyst Ian Finley, much of the work in app dev is done outside IT departments. This is not due to IT's lack of interest but to the perception that IT lacks the appropriate skill set. Marketing departments, for example, will hire outside consultants because IT isn't seen as place to turn for these skills, he said.

Finley shares the opinion that real business value going forward is in the app layer. He strongly agrees with Le Du that mobile is at the heart of this app-centric world. For him, however, that old ERP system also has an important role in CIOs' having a home in the app space: It's part of the foundation on which trust is built. Systems of record also are proving grounds for CIOs. Such systems, including commodity systems like ERP, are where CIOs gain trust by running those systems as cheaply and effectively as possible. Systems of differentiation, as the name implies, are those things that are built to speak to the uniqueness of the business and develop market share.

Taking on systems of differentiation "moves a CIO from being a support function to being a business partner," Finley said. "You can't just jump to high levels of trust with the business. If they're going to trust you with their project, you have to earn your way up through those ranks."

Finley says he recently spoke with an IT leader at a casino who created an enterprise-facing mobile app to speed up permissions between departments for moving machines on the gaming floor. The application won't change the competitive environment, but it probably will improve efficiency and make things run more profitably. It's an example of a good first step, he said.

"They probably have some mobile apps for promotions and to get users to come to the casino," Finley said. "But in order for that IT organization to ever get to be the chosen provider for those high-value, high-risk kinds of situations, they're going to have to execute very well on the more system-of-record-type applications."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, Features Writer.

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