Emphasis on flexibility elevates IT to strategic realm

IT Ops often writes about quantifiable technical returns-to-investment with clear business significance: improvement in uptime, lowered cost, better application responsiveness and so on. Many of the same engineering initiatives of systematic end-to-end performance management, devops acculturation and so on, pay off in less tangible but more strategic ways, though: they promote a more flexible and nimble organization which brings value into production quicker and more reliably.

That’s one of the exciting observations I’ve made in my own career, one further documented in such recent write-ups as “Transforming IT: Creating a Service-Centric Model” and “EHR’s latest usability challenge: Application performance“. As beneficial as “flexibility” or “agility” sound, they make for difficult cultural transitions in certain industries and organizations. Consider the case of electronic health records (EHR) as they appeared in a couple of recent postings on IT outages. A traditional information technology (IT) perspective might start by aiming for zero outages, or, as those earlier articles mentioned, use of application performance management (APM) to define an affordable threshold of availability. Pertinent metrics in these terms include cost savings and number of minutes per year the health professionals are unable to access patient records.

Relaxation of IT’s usual “siloes” and rigid boundaries opens new possibilities, though. Modern APM gives a unifying viewpoint across networks, datastores and other IT assets. This enables IT to grow beyond its role as a cost center, lead development of new products and services and promote business-level communication between different parts of an organization. In “4 Survival Strategies for IT Chaos“, celebrated medical CIO John Halamka illustrates how he builds on a basic roll-out of EHR to experiment with entirely new functions. While the doctors at Beth Israel Medical Center give up a degree of the comfort and privacy of older paper-based medical records, they gain far more with all the strategically-innovative opportunities EHR creates. In some cases, they have invented kinds of patient care that were simply unthinkable in a paper-based system.

Similar stories are emerging in other domains with strong workflow traditions. Digitization of documents in legal, financial and engineering domains brings not just cost savings up to 90%, but whole new categories of functionality, or new business lines. That is the next frontier for IT: to leverage the proven technologies currently available to create new products in days or weeks, rather than months or years.