Advice for IT leaders: How to tell the cloud story

The case for cloud computing is less about the technical fine points and more about telling a compelling story to your IT team and business peers. Here are four essential elements.

For large corporate IT shops, cloud is no longer an if, but a when, how much, and what does it mean for us? In the last year alone, Fortune 500 stalwarts such as General Electric and Johnson & Johnson announced that the majority of their IT assets will move to cloud services by 2020.

They're not alone. Most organizations today are typically between planning and early implementation cloud efforts. These cloud initiatives are getting more attention from business leaders, and at a growing number of organizations, also from CEOs and boards of directors, who are asking questions about what the cloud means for their companies and their industries. Corporate IT leaders don't just need a cloud strategy -- they must make a compelling cloud story for their business partners, as well as their own teams.

Elements of a compelling cloud story

There are four critical parts to the case for cloud computing.

1.        Cloud needs to be part of -- not separate from -- the broader enterprise digitization story. For years, the debate that dominated cloud conversations in corporate IT was about cost: whether it's cheaper over the long-run to operate in the cloud relative to operating on-premises. The problem with this debate is that it continues to treat IT as a cost-management problem, rather than as an ingredient in corporate growth -- an approach that ignores today's CEO prerogative to look to technology for digital growth opportunities.

IT leaders who successfully articulate aggressive cloud plans typically don't do so in isolation, focusing strictly on cost implications. Rather, they stress speed and flexibility gains that can enable enterprise digital strategy, bringing the case for cloud into the broader story that the CEO and CFO are telling investors about enterprise digitization and growth.

 2.       Cloud should push corporate IT leaders to change their engagement posture with business leaders. For all the questions it raises, cloud has simplified business leaders' ability to engage with IT, but not necessarily corporate IT. Business leaders can exploit more technology opportunities and access more capabilities than ever before. In fact, CEB data indicates that 70% of business leaders want advice on these opportunities and capabilities from their IT departments. But only a quarter of business leaders find that their IT leaders provide effective advice, or believe that corporate IT has sufficient technical expertise (especially when compared to vendors).

The fault lies in a business engagement model in which corporate IT leaders focus on governance and policy at the expense of advice and education. The cloud story that IT leaders need to tell their business partners should be about how IT will build new partnerships with the business to explore and exploit cloud opportunities.

Relay the case for cloud computing in the language of new business opportunities, new models for business engagement and collaboration, and new opportunities for technology careers.

3.       Cloud should push IT organizations to refocus on their comparative advantage. Cloud has already raised (and for many organizations, answered) the question around whether corporate IT wants to be in the business of owning email or large, on-premises HR and CRM systems. As cloud progresses, it will continue to raise the questions about whether corporate IT wants to own and operate other assets and delivery activities such as ERP, storage and disaster recovery. But by answering this question on a system- or domain-level basis, corporate IT organizations may miss the opportunity to define the business they should be in.

One progressive IT organization we've worked with has already explicitly shifted its mission and focus from activities that are largely focused on IT service delivery to those that "scale, protect, and automate." These are activities where the IT function is uniquely positioned to ensure that a cloud- and business-driven IT model works as intended. A cloud story that is part of a broader digital strategy needs to spell out where corporate IT will focus its resources and energies, and where it will shed activities that are no longer needed.

4.       The case for cloud computing requires IT organizations to rethink career models, particularly when it comes to specialized teams. The growth of cloud has profound implications for IT organizations. Whether it's been declared or not, corporate IT departments will probably exit certain IT businesses in five or 10 years' time. IT leaders who haven't had a candid talk with their teams about the impact of cloud on career development -- or those who assume that IT's existing career models will simply accommodate the cloud -- are putting employee retention and engagement at risk. The temptation many IT leaders have is to solve for this major sea change in IT delivery models through role and team restructuring. But this approach, if not explained correctly, can be further alienating, especially for staff who feels left behind.

Forward-thinking IT organizations are careful to send teams the message that cloud and other technology developments present an opportunity for experimentation, innovation, and growth across IT -- a refreshing change of pace for teams that have labored mostly to the tune of efficiency. Other organizations are using the advent of cloud to promote a larger career shift from narrow specialization in a single technology domain to a generalist profile that marries some specialized expertise with more generalized architectural knowledge and business experience. Either way, the most enduring and most important cloud story leaders will tell their teams is one that emphasizes how cloud presents opportunities for team and career growth.

New opportunities with cloud

Debates around the role of the cloud in large enterprises -- from economics to management -- will continue from now through the end of the decade. Many IT leaders will be technically correct on many points in these debates but unable to communicate their cloud strategies effectively, even when they're right.

Successful leaders will be those who frame cloud as a matter of business strategy, not just IT strategy. They'll relay the case for cloud computing in the language of new business opportunities, new models for business engagement and collaboration, and new opportunities for technology careers.

They will be the ones who can fashion a cloud story that is compelling for their business peers and their IT teams. Fundamentally, they'll tell cloud stories as enterprise leaders, not just leaders in corporate IT.

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