Ten years ago, Southwestern Services, a Fort Worth company that remodels large retail stores, had no dedicated information technology employees. After all, the bulk of the computing going on was being done by a few managers working with mostly local data on desktop terminals at headquarters. Today Southwestern has 40 employees, and they're scattered around the country with laptops wirelessly blasting blueprints and photos from job sites for on-the-fly revisions and supply management. No wonder Southwestern's IT head count has climbed all the way to…zero. "We've gotten all the benefits of new technologies without the cost of an in-house IT person," boasts John Lee, the company's vice president.
It's often said that these days, every business is a technology business. If that's the case, then you'd think every business would need a technology staff. But a funny thing happened on the way to today's technocrazy world: Even as technology has become one of the keys to a successful business strategy, the need for dedicated IT staffers has diminished rather than increased.
How can this be? Before we get to that, let's pause for a brief history of the corporate IT person. We'll start in the 1950s, when the only computers were multimillion-dollar mainframes and most companies could only afford to rent time on someone else's remote machine. Back then, IT pros were backroom engineers who reported to accountants. When mainframes and then minicomputers came inside the company walls in the '60s and '70s, the top tech person generally bore the title of vice president and was responsible for nearly every aspect of technology strategy. The PC revolution of the early 1980s leveled the playing field, allowing rank-and-file employees to use computers with next to no technical expertise. And finally, when people realized how much more useful PCs became if they were networked into shared applications--and how much trouble they could be to keep up and running--the chief information officer was born.
But if I were a CIO right now, I'd be rethinking my career choice. For one thing, nearly all of us have become more savvy about technology. We know our way around a file directory. We don't freak out when an application freezes. And backing up data is about as mysterious as microwaving soup. Many of us are even comfortable mucking around with network settings and website functionality. Just seven or so years ago, the very thought of civilians attempting that sort of thing would have given an IT manager seizures. In the recent past, these kinds of tech skills would have been a nice bonus in a nontechnical hire; today you'd probably think twice before hiring anyone, for any position, who seems baffled by computers.
What's more, if you're hiring people straight out of college or graduate school, you're facing an embarrassment of riches. "The technical understanding of the younger people we're getting keeps getting better and better every year," says Larry Reinstein, president of Fresh City, a chain of 18 health-conscious fast-food restaurants in the Northeast and Illinois. Some of these graduates, he notes, are coming out of school with more familiarity with computers and networks than the typical IT staffer had a decade ago. And you don't need to have everyone in the company operating at that high level of expertise: Two or three especially adept people can help smooth out occasional technical wrinkles for dozens and help senior management with IT planning. Indeed, Reinstein attends restaurant industry technology conventions with one of his more technically adept employees in tow to evaluate possible new technology directions.
If we're getting smarter, the hardware and software we depend on is, too. Computers typically run perfectly right out of the box and can even set themselves up into simple networks. They don't crash nearly as often as they used to, and they troubleshoot themselves when they do. Setting up an office network of a few dozen PCs can require some special expertise, but not on an ongoing basis. At Southwestern Services, John Lee comes as close to being CIO as anyone. He notes that the company's network rarely requires much intervention these days, and when it does, employees usually are able to tweak things back to life. "People here used to fix their own cars and take the PC to the shop," Lee says. "Now it's more the other way around." When things do go haywire, Southwestern brings on an IT consulting firm called MyIT.com. And even that's become easier, says Lee, because MyIT.com can remotely monitor everything going on with every one of the company's PCs to spot and fix issues before anyone knows he or she has a problem.
And then, of course, there's the Internet. Business computing used to rise and fall on the quality of the data kept within the company's four walls, and that meant maintaining big databases and the servers required to run them. Now much if not most of the data we need is out there on the Web, requiring no more effort than clicking on a link. Of course, companies still need to manage software to handle things such as accounting, inventory, customer relationship management, time management, logistics, point of sale. But because these kinds of applications can now be accessed via the Internet, they too have grown easier to use and maintain.
Indeed, most major applications are now provided entirely over the Web by application vendors. Such "software-as-a-service" or "on-demand" offerings are in some ways the full-circle return to the earliest days of computing, when companies time-shared remotely on a vendor's mainframe. But whereas ancient time-sharing incurred vast communications costs and ruled out customized software, today's Web-based applications piggyback on ridiculously cheap and fast access and are at least as customizable as anything you can run on your own hardware.
Using a Web-based application shifts much of the IT burden from you to the people at the other end. Vendors charge accordingly, of course; software-as-a-service doesn't necessarily remove cost as much as repackage it in a more predictable per user, per year form. But there's little arguing that online software reduces dependence on in-house IT. HoneyBaked Ham Company of Georgia moved to Salesforce.com's (NYSE:CRM) online CRM system two years ago to help 120 employees stay more on top of some 40,000 accounts. The company, based in Norcross, Georgia, has an IT department of 10 people, but none of them worked on getting Salesforce up and running. Instead, that task went to Matt Troy, a marketing executive with no particular expertise in technology. Salesforce reps showed him how to customize the product for HoneyBaked's business; as it happens, it wasn't much harder than formatting a document. The IT staffers, meanwhile, stayed busy with traditional applications. "I really have no background in technology at all," Troy says. "But I was the guy responsible for customizing the system."
Even Web-based software vendors don't like to push the notion that customers can shrink their IT departments, because IT departments often make purchasing decisions. Vendors prefer to say that their services free up the IT department to focus on business issues rather than technical ones. Well, okay. But here's a question: What do you call an IT person who focuses on business issues? I'd call that person a businessperson.
And that's really the point. It's not that your company doesn't need information technology expertise. It's that the nature of IT jobs is evolving in ways that are making the position unsuitable for old-style technologists. Simply put, the new CIO is none other than you. And your tech staff includes most of your rank-and-file employees. Indeed, I'm willing to bet that such a shift has happened already at your company, even if you haven't thought of it that way.
But once you do, the results may be surprisingly liberating. IT departments, even while providing invaluable services, have also been about controlling resources and setting limits. That's not a criticism; it's exactly what companies needed to keep things working smoothly. That's why IT managers, by and large, fought departmental minicomputers, why they fought PCs, why they fought Internet access, and why today some still are often fighting what many of the rest of us find to be the most exciting aspects of new technology. It's a bit like lawyers and dentists--we need them, but we also dearly wish life could proceed apace without them. In the case of IT, we may be getting our wish. Let's call it a good start.
Contributing editor David H. Freedman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Boston-based author of several books about business and technology.