Data Center Futures: Sharing control of the IT fiefdom

If a business unit is paying IT for its services, why shouldn't it have a role in deciding what products are purchased? They should have a say, agree most CIOs. As a result, despite the inevitable frustration on both sides, a growing number of organizations are forming interdepartmental committees to decide which applications best meet the company's overall business strategy.

CHICAGO -- IT managers are losing control of their data centers, as internal business units continue to play a larger role in making purchasing decisions regarding applications and platforms.

Although the frustration runs deep, many IT organizations have learned to adapt to changes in business practices and are using the input from their business units to their advantage.

Historically, business units, such as sales and marketing, had little input into deciding which applications were used within the organization. But somewhere along the way, IT lost credibility -- and it isn't necessarily seen, anymore, as being skilled at making viable business decisions, said Gartner Inc. analyst Carl Claunch, who spoke to about 350 high-level IT professionals, including data center managers, network administrators, engineers and CIOs at TechTarget's Data Center Futures 2003 conference this week.

"They were thinking too much about the architecture and not enough about business strategy," he said. "They've been disconnected. Their credibility was doubted. There was a lack of trust on the part of the business managers."

As data centers become cost centers -- many of the business units once at the mercy of IT are now paying for applications -- and as IT lost its credibility in understanding the business needs of the organization, managers have been backed against the data center wall.

But giving complete control of the IT fiefdom to business units is not only out of the question, it is simply dangerous and can only result in fewer IT efficiencies.

"They do what's best for them as a single business unit and not what's best for the company," Claunch said.

The shift in power is pretty well marked, but all is not doomed. Data center managers are gaining back some trust by developing business strategy skills.

Clearly, the creation of the CIO had a major impact on IT's being able to re-establish credibility.

Still, there's a butting of heads that continues to exists. Just as the business units couldn't understand IT speak, IT sometimes has trouble understanding business speak.

"The biggest issue we're facing is trying to decipher their requirements," said Robert Tudor, a network manager for LifeWay Christian Resources, in Nashville, Tenn. "They're not articulating what their needs are."

Tudor's sentiments are shared by many conference attendees, who tend to roll their eyes or smirk when asked about sharing purchasing decisions with business units.

Still, they are all smart enough to realize that, if you can't beat them, you've got to join them. As a result, most managers said their organizations have formed joint committees to discuss business strategies and the IT solutions that will get them there.

Organizations such as Northwestern Human Services, in Lafayette Hill, Pa., are putting processes in place so that the decision-making process doesn't go astray. Still, one firm rule has been established that, to date, hasn't been broken.

"Our CIO said nothing goes in unless IT approves it," said Charles Cave, director of network operations.

To be sure, such a strong-arm approach would not work in every environment, yet it drives the point home: IT is critical to this decision-making process.

A more common approach may be a joint committee where decisions are made. "We attempt to form core teams with cross-functional representatives," said Bob Beattie, supervisor of problem and change management at Ford Motor Co., in Dearborn, Mich.

Beattie said that demand from business units isn't universal at his organization, but he admits that some units want more of a part in the decision-making process.

And why shouldn't they? Ford's funding model requires that business units pay for the applications and services they use. "They're making sure that what they're paying for is what they want," he said.

The core group meetings are meant to hash things out before they become problems within the IT organization. "We try to balance what they're asking for with what will fit into our communized architecture platforms," he said.

Data center managers say there's no doubt that the alignment of IT and other internal business units is a good thing; they're glad for it and consider it preventive maintenance.

Dan Bateman, an IT manager with Salt River Project, a power and water utility company based in Phoenix, said that his CIO created an architecture review board in an attempt to ward off any buying-decision issues involving the business units.

It used to happen that there was a lot of discourse between IT and the business units, but now "they're involved up front," Bateman said.

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