Operational and Strategic Tech: "I Want a Divorce"

Operational and strategic technologists are about as different as Obama is from Bush. I cannot for the life of me understand why they didn’t divorce ten years ago.


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For lots of CIOs, infrastructure is the essence of their existence. Truth be told, they are Chief Infrastructure Officers. They spend their days and nights keeping the lights on and running the engine.

And they do it well. The smart ones exploit commoditization trends, best practices and – especially these days – deep discounts in the provisioning of computing and communications gear. Chief Infrastructure Officers are under pressure today to reduce their budgets even more than they have over the past few years.

Lean-and-mean is taking on a whole new meaning.

But infrastructure is easier to acquire, deploy and support than strategic technology. Does anyone want to argue that it’s easier to upgrade desktops than implement a CRM application? Infrastructure is more predictable and therefore manageable: we understand infrastructure performance metrics much better than strategic technology metrics.

Strategic technology that touches customers and suppliers has always been more challenging than operational technology. Life cycles are longer and project scope creep is bigger with strategic technology projects. Expectations are higher as well.

While everyone thinks that email should be bulletproof, they also believe that CRM or business intelligence (BI) applications should transform business processes and almost instantly spike revenue. The difference is that email can be bulletproof, whereas CRM, BI, and similar applications are far from perfect and, in fact, are often pretty lame.

I have thought about the dichotomy for decades. (I realize that this means that I have a flat learning curve: if I’ve been thinking about it for so long then why haven’t I solved the problem?) Infrastructure is completely different from the technology intended to transform or improve business processes.

Ah, the world of servers, desktops and networks. I can actually touch them, fondle them if I like. But where is my data on that nasty customer and how does it help me turn an adversarial relationship into a productive partnership?

Two different worlds, two different sets of expectations, two different tool sets, two different skill sets. Everything’s different in these two worlds.

So why have they lived together for so long?

One explanation is precedent. Operational and strategic technology have lived together for a long time, from the “beginning” in fact. But that partnership has always been lopsided: the overwhelming percentage of technology has – since the beginning – been operational, not strategic. Sure, companies (and their vendors) talk a good game about strategic value. But the fact is that the action has mostly been about operational cost-effectiveness.

This explains the other reason why operational and strategic technology have lived together for so long: there’s hardly been any real strategic technology out there.

But now it’s the 21st century and strategic technology is very real and robust. Operational technology has actually never been in better shape. Through technologies like virtualization and voice-over-IP, it’s never been easier, faster or cheaper to provision infrastructure services. (Chief Infrastructure Officers – if they are smart and competent – have plenty of time for golf.)

Strategic technology is as different from this experience as possible, suggesting that maybe it’s time for a divorce.

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Tags: services, support, virtualization, CRM, voice

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