Recently, I've got into about a dozen very interesting discussions with some more advanced IT groups around the promises and pitfalls of what's likely to be called "frictionless IT".
And, in the process, we're stumbling into some rather thorny philisophical issues around what IT is really all about.
I'm not saying anyone has answers here, I'm just enjoying the debate.
And I'm guessing that this discussion will get more common -- and more heated -- in the coming years.
So, What's All This About?
Imagine it's a few years from now -- a bit in the future, but not so far out that it's going to be someone else's problem to go solve.
You've fully virtualized the majority of your server and desktop images.
You've got an integrated management paradigm that does integrated provisioning of server / storage / network. Service levels can adjust up and down within a relatively broad range automatically.
Just about everything is templated: production images, development environment, database clones -- the works.
Information security is fully implemented; there's no serious worry about information leaking out. And everything is pretty well utilized and optimized.
In this future world, maybe you haven't done this for your entire environment, but a good-sized chunk of it.
I know what you're thinking -- what world do you live in?
But -- stay with me here for just a bit.
Do you turn it over to some of your users and say "have at it?".
Or, put differently, do you hand over some of this new-found capability directly to the business, and get out of the way, so to speak?
For some, that's a scary proposition. For others, it's the potential next step in creating a new form of IT value.
And I'm starting to see a few quiet experiments here and there along these lines in a few corners of the IT landscape.
Users and IT Friction
Now, if you work in IT, please don't take this the wrong way, but when business users generally talk about their supporting IT functions (and you're not in the room!), they usually talk in terms of "friction" -- resistance and intertia that has to be overcome to achieve a business outcome.
Now, I'm not talking about the big, honkin' re-engineer-your-business-process kind of IT projects, I'm talking about the hundreds -- or thousands -- of bite-sized IT projects that never get done -- or considered -- simply because there's too much friction to overcome.
What if you could find a way to eliminate most of the friction for these types of projects, keep costs in line, and keep the business out of trouble (generally speaking)?
Example 1 -- Developers
From what I can see, the development process has a lot of friction associated with creating and maintaining development environments.
Imagine an environment where filling out a simple, web-based form instantly got you a (virtualized) development environment, pre-templated with the approved development tools, whatever software stack is being used, a nice data model, and a catalog of exposed services.
Ask for one, ask for twenty -- it doesn't matter. When they're not being actively used, these server images live on cheap disk, and don't consume CPU, memory or power.
Now, I haven't done software development in over two decades, but from where I sit, I can guess that developers would be a heckuva lot more productive.
I've met a few people who are experimenting with just this kind of environment. They joke that they needed to appoint a Den Mother to clean up after everyone, but -- all kidding aside -- they say that developers are really jazzed about the new environment, and they're getting far better work from them.
Now, what's the business value of a 50% more productive developer? Or one that can finish in 50% of the time?
That's the potential value of getting the friction out.
Example 2 -- Decision Support
More and more parts of the business wants access to more and more of the data warehouse for modelling, analysis, etc. They might want to juxtapose other information with whatever's in the datawarehouse.
My impression is that a lot of people end up getting a stale extract, loading it up on their PCs, and grind away at that. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Now, imagine if you could go to a web-based interface, ask for a data extract from the data warehouse, and have it loaded up in your own personal data model instance running on a powerful virtual machine ... all the tools you need are there, and -- when you're running your analysis -- you've got some serious crunch at your beck and call.
And, when you're not, it's being used by someone else.
Once again, I've met people who are playing exactly with that kind of approach. Sure, their storage requirements are going through the roof (no, this is not some cynical plot by EMC!), but the decision support analysts swear that their lives are better, and that they're delivering far better results, in far less time.
What's the value of better, more timely analysis to far more people in the organization?
That's the potential of removing friction.
Example 3 -- The "Pilot"
One of the ways that business users try to reduce friction with IT is to call something a "pilot". I've probably mentioned that I'm running a social media proficiency initiative at EMC. What I might not have shared is how we got it up so quickly.
Because it was categorized as a pilot, EMC IT was very comfortable in getting our new software up and running in a virtual machine in very short order. As a result, we probably sliced at least two months off our timetable, simply because we chose a path with less friction.
As the environment grew -- and become most definitely un-pilot-like -- our IT group was able to slide us on to more robust infrastructure with an absolute minimum of disruption.
FWIW, if I could estimate the value of those two months, I'd probably put it north of several million dollars in terms of business value generated.
Once again, friction removed.
Meeting The Unmet Needs Of Business Users
I am of the opinion that many IT organizations focus on the major applications they have, and don't give a lot of attention to the stuff that just isn't even considered because the friction coefficient is too high to consider.
What if IT designed an environment precisely to meet these unmet needs? A low friction environment for stuff that isn't being done anywhere else?
Make it as easy as possible to consume IT resources?
We were talking about this idea in a session recently, and one of the customer people blurted out "I've spent my whole career trying to slow users down, and now you want me to get out of the way?"
Yup. Not for everything, just for some of the landscape. And think of it as a new way of creating IT value -- something that you're not doing today.
What Are You, Nuts?
A lot of IT's value is thinking about things that users don't. What if there's an outage? What if it's slow?
What if we corrupt data? What if it needs to get 10x bigger? And -- most importantly -- who's going to fund all of this?
These are all valid and useful concerns -- but I would offer that, in the act of worrying about these very important things -- there's a lot of innovative use of IT that just doesn't get considered.
By creating a constrained -- and supervised -- playpen where knowledgeable business users can get their job done with a minimum of friction, good things can potentially happen. Or, at least, that's the idea.
The Dark Side Of IT Friction
If I'm a business person, and I think something needs to be done, and I can't get what I need out of IT, I will probably put significant effort into Finding Another Way.
Historically, we called this "shadow IT".
Today, we call it Google, or Amazon, or Yahoo, or whatever.
Indeed, with every passing day, there are more and more opportunities for business users to consume "frictionless IT" that's outside of the enterprise. Maybe this is a good thing, maybe this is a bad thing -- but you can't manage what you don't know about, can you?
Will Business Users Pay For Speed?
Yes. Unquestionably yes.
Sure, they'll hammer you for the best deal, but what makes them business people is they know value when they see it.
And speed -- lack of friction -- creates value.
They pay extra for a more direct flight. They pay a premium for overnight delivery services. They engage with recruiters and consultants and service bureaus comfortably, simply because they can get what they need faster.
Why not IT services?
Some Hard Questions To Answer
When we consider valuing IT, how important is agility and flexibility? Getting new things done with a minimum of fuss?
Do we focus on the huge, visible projects at the expense of hundreds of other potential smaller ones?
Have we built our IT governance process to create additional friction, or minimize it?
Or, when we think about this idealized, virtualized environment we're all building, is the primary goal to reduce costs?
Or minimize friction?