April 2020

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Promises and Challenges of Enterprise IT

You are in the change agent business. As a matter of fact, everyone in IT management is a professional change agent. Change agents are business leaders who galvanize their teams and lead their enterprises ahead of the competition.

As a matter of fact, everyone in IT management is a professional change agent. Change agents are business leaders who galvanize their teams and lead their enterprises ahead of the competition. They clearly understand the business goals of their employers. They strive to constantly align these goals with their organizations of people and systems in a perpetually changing technology environment. And now they are expected to go beyond a cost center existence and become an engine of innovation for the business. We all know the IT business is always in a constant state of permutation and transformation. It is the nature of the beast. And as senior IT managers and leaders, it is our job to take calculated risks to deftly adopt and adapt these changes to benefit the business or to actually become the business in some instances. Most of us already know the reward of economic success, whether it’s the form of increased revenue or reduced costs, is closely associated with new technology adoption. Sometimes these new technology innovations come in small waves. Sometimes there are large, sustained waves to ride. And at certain magic times, there is a collection of technology waves that bring significant innovative alterations to enterprise information systems.  

Recently there has been a tremendous influx of new technologies, techniques, and tools that are truly dizzying. We now have several technology trends, with some of them potentially game-changing. But as professional change agents, it’s important for us to not look at each one individually but view them as potential ingredients for more comprehensive solutions. Quite often, major advances in the IT business occur when several technologies are combined and used in innovative ways.

TECHNOLOGY ERAS IN THE ENTERPRISE There seems to be a common pattern that occurs approximately every 10 to 15 years. During these cycles, there is often a large shift in enterprise technology. A new set of tools and approaches emerges and perceptive enterprises capitalize on these innovations. Mainframes, minicomputers, the Internet, Unix/C, ethernet, PCs, and the Web were all disruptive tools of their times. They all represented monumental eras that brought significant enhancements to enterprise IT. But each of these eras was characterized by an effective federation of technologies and/or techniques. No one solitary technology or management approach was responsible for a new approach to IT, but rather it was a collaborative collection of innovations, techniques, and tools.  
Before new IT tools become commonplace, they enter our lives as relatively simple and refreshing changes to stale approaches. But as IT technologies and approaches age, they go through a phase of increasing complexity due to the demands for more functionality. Over time a previously lightweight foundation becomes unfit for creeping, new functionality and featurism. The foundation soon cracks and a new road towards solutions needs to be built. And once the road is built, innovative new applications that were never seen before offering significant advantages to enterprises. Or sometimes these innovations severely upset existing businesses and status quo business models so radically that corporations need to pivot quickly to survive. This cycle has repeated for decades.

WHO’S NEXT Now, it is not just cloud-native computing, microservice/serverless architectures, computing at the edge, the evolution of blockchain, engineering leadership/culture, embedded computing, recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) or any other singular breakthrough. The next phase of our enterprise computing continuum should be similar to the others; it’s the clever amalgam of selected technology features to increase revenue, manage costs and generally make our work (and home) lives better. This approach requires every informed technology executive, technical manager, technology strategist and architect to have a thorough understanding of all these latest trends and, more importantly, how they can be used collectively.  

CLOUD NATIVE COMPUTING Cloud-native is a way of designing, deploying and running enterprise applications that assume a cloud computing infrastructure. This IT philosophy is well beyond merely porting an application from a corporate data center to one of the cloud vendors. It requires a microservices mindset that is dynamically deployable using containers and container management systems. You may have already heard the buzzwords: Docker, serverless, Kubernetes, Istio, etc. But the rise of these service-oriented, agile, decentralized approaches to IT engineering is disrupting the very organization of the enterprise itself. Engineering approaches have caused CEOs to rethink how their organizations are structured.

THE EVOLUTION OF BLOCKCHAIN Blockchain is another new tool that is growing in popularity. It is the underlying technology of many cryptocurrencies, some of them quite controversial. While it powers the foundation of these cryptocurrencies, it can be used for many other significant enterprise use cases such as finance, retail, logistics, supply chains, legal, healthcare and even in DevOps. It is an effective way to establish trust among transacting parties, reduce costs and potentially increase transaction speed.

MACHINE LEARNING Machine Learning (ML) has the potential to dramatically reshape not only enterprise IT but the world itself. ML has its origins in artificial intelligence (AI) from many decades ago but the infrastructure wasn’t mature enough. About 10 years ago, there were some breakthroughs in new, scalable algorithms using new types of artificial neural networks (ANN). With the advent of cloud computing that can deliver enormous computing resources on-demand along with the vast amounts of data currently available, the power of ML was magnified exponentially. The potential of ML has huge implications for the very foundations of computing with new computing hardware, novel architectures, and innovative software approaches. But Machine Learning requires holistic organizational management since there are many issues concerning ethics, data privacy, bias, interpretability, and team training.

NEW GENERATION OF ENTERPRISE IT Current enterprise technology is indeed quite powerful and is evolving at an extremely rapid pace. The velocity and magnitude of our modern IT environment offer the possibility of major innovations and disruptions, especially by combining some of these new tools in interesting ways. It also raises questions on complexity, regulations, governance, and ethics. Senior technology managers need to understand the collective effects of these new tools on the business now and in the near future.