Good problems: Business growth and a cloudier IT future

June 30, 2015
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West Michigan’s economy is back, and Grand Rapids is now the place to be.

We were most recently ranked the No. 3 city in the nation for economic growth by national trade publication Area Development. Competing with 373 other metro communities around the United States, we were beaten out for the top position only by Houston and Denver. It’s great news for all of us in the Grand Rapids metro area, which now boasts unemployment under 5 percent. Our local economy is projected to grow over 3 percent this year due to a surge in key industries like advanced manufacturing, life sciences, agribusiness, aerospace and defense, and information technology.

The news is tempered by the fact that many businesses I talk to are struggling to keep up with new demand, finding the right people for open jobs, and supporting them with the tools they need to grow in a faster-paced economic climate. But I like to think this falls into the category of "Good Problems."

I’m focused on Information Technology and working with our teams at i3 to identify issues and make strategic plans for IT growth to support these businesses struggling with their IT management and planning. There’s a consistent pattern we’re seeing right now:

  • Aging legacy software systems -- often put in place at the turn of the century, they are expensive to maintain, and straining to adapt to new requirements and integration needs.
  • Aging computer hardware servers well past their end-of-life.
  • Server sprawl and unmanaged virtual systems and networks.
  • Mobile devices everywhere, way beyond desktops and laptops.
  • Security and compliance issues sprouting like weeds due to all of the above.

Sound familiar? None of this stuff seems to be getting any less complicated. So to help reframe your IT strategy and help support the people in your organization in this growth cycle, I offer up three steps you can take to help plan for what comes next:

1. Focus on your software and data assets

Make a list of all the business software applications that everyone in your organization uses day in and day out. These software and data assets are increasing in value and determining the future success of your business in a fast-paced and competitive market. A complete inventory of software and data assets at mid-year 2015 will help you determine core applications, identify obsolete software and processes -- and what needs to be retired. More than ever before, compliance and security issues need to be addressed immediately to protect these assets and manage your risk.

2. Embrace mobility

We all use our phones and tablets to get our work done now. With that said, the Bring Your Own Device trend in the business context is starting to get a little messy. We all can and should use our own hardware and integrate with work systems and networks, because of the flexibility and innovation, and should enable us to reduce overall business IT costs. So smartphones and tablets should not be viewed as just another a headache for the IT department, or an excessive security risk.

The software application list you started in step 1? Keep listing out all the apps on you iPhone, then start asking around the office. Write down all the Outlook and gmail and other email clients, Dropbox, YouTube, Skype, FaceTime, you name it -- all the other apps that you and everybody else are actually using day to day.

With a smart BYOD strategy to integrate these with our business systems, these mobile devices can and will help everyone do their job better, be more innovative, be more flexible, and be more agile, helping your organization respond to the faster pace.

3. Empower people with the cloud

All those apps and services you listed in step 2? All of them are powered by cloud services somewhere up there in the cloudy back end. All of them. So no matter how you look at it, from here on out your business software and mobility strategy is dependent on the cloud.

The business challenge is grasping this cloud-powered model and turning it into business productivity. Work. Creating value. Getting things done faster, better, cheaper.

Business agility, cost and scalability are the top three business drivers for adopting the cloud. This is a goal for simplification of IT into a utility model of computing. The cloud is the fastest and most direct way to get things done with IT. The cloud can make business function in ways that can maximize growth and value -- allowing you to move in new and innovative directions.

Cloud computing shifts you from buying IT as a capital expense to paying as you go for what you use -- an operational cost that is the same as utilities like electricity, gas and water. The days of buying servers and storage hardware, phone systems, or software licenses as capital expenditures are coming to an end.

The Big 4 cloud platforms today and well into the future -- Amazon, Microsoft, Google and IBM -- have invested tens of billions of dollars over the past few years to build a mind-boggling worldwide IT cloud platform that will work, no matter what, almost always, so you don’t have to. They are also making it simpler for small-to-medium-sized businesses to pick and choose services from them now.

The list you created in steps 1 and 2 is merging into one software-driven IT model. If your software can run in the cloud, you will run it in the cloud eventually.

With the new economic upswing in Michigan, it’s time to challenge old IT assumptions and embrace the growth and innovation that software in the cloud is making possible. Many of the old IT limitations are evaporating, and we need to imagine new ways to get the job done, using the cloud strategically to move faster, be smarter and deploy quicker.

That's the real business value of IT. 

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