One of the people I will introduce you to next week in our new 2012 25 Top Information Manager list, a senior IT director at an large investment/retirement firm, was talking to me about the risks that come along with technology change.

He said at one point, “you know, there’s an old saying that if your environment changes faster than you can, you are not long for this world.”

You can apply this rule to business or politics or other things, but he was referring to IT, where the rate and range of change has taken on a life of its own. I’d add that evolution is a particularly harsh trap to an organization like IT that has been handed prestructured platforms, silos of expensive and complex software and infrastructure assets to manage and control. In a business world based on operational continuity where uptime and security once preceded flexibility, that’s an important job and people do forget it’s what IT was hired to do.

We’re in a place now where these facilitators of orderly commerce are often seen as an impediment to business, and pretty much everyone’s expectations are to blame. I was reminded of this last week reading Boris Evelson’s blog about business intelligence self-service. Boris is a top Forrester Research analyst who has been around BI technology for a long time, but knows even more about the constraints and the demands of his end user clients.  

Many of us would hold his truths to be self-evident: that “BI requirements change faster than an IT-centric model can keep up;” that ritual waterfall software development methodology is too slow and falls behind user needs with specifications that quickly become irrelevant; that IT insists on standard tools and methodologies.

The answer is self-service, which Evelson suggests is already the bulk of non-mission critical BI use. “We all know Excel is the number 1 BI tool no matter what anyone tries to do,” he told me. “Business people have known for years that traditional BI will only get them 20 percent of the way and for the other 80 percent they have to make do with Excel."

You might compare the frustration to a typical needful but casual user looking for an umbrella to get to lunch on a rainy day, but finding only a fancy snow blower, designer sunglasses and a parachute in the hall closet. 

Evelson says that to be relevant in an evolving business dynamic, IT needs to stop fighting the battle. We’ve heard that from other corners, but better than that, he proposed a compromise to address those dreaded “spread marts” IT is always either worrying about or trying to stamp out. He described it to me as “managed self-service versus anarchy self-service.”

“Embrace it and say, we understand Excel and PowerPivot and QlikTech can provide instant gratification that my BI data model and data warehouse doesn’t answer. But let’s have it reside on a server so we can see what you are doing and control it and manage it and protect you and provide infrastructure with load balancing and disaster recovery that we can monitor.”

If users create apps and views that are not too big or too complex, he says, fine. But, “if we notice you start building apps in QlikView and PowerPivot with billions of rows and you are distributing that to thousands of people, we’ll come in and put more controls around it because it’s now looking like a real initiative and mission critical.”

I think this is going to become even more the case for mobile BI users, who we’ve mentioned again and again are pounding the door of the great majority of CIOs we talk to. In this area too, lightweight and friendly is the 80 to the 20 percent of technology that only touches a relative (but important) few.   

Mobility isn’t Boris’s turf, but as an example we compared notes on a global maritime operator (also on our 25 Top Information Manager list this year) that owns millions of cargo containers as an example of a far flung business trying to cope with any number of dynamics.

“See how that changes on a daily basis,” he said. “One day the Strait of Hormuz is closed and you have to reroute everybody. They are as likely as not to have a significantly different model every day.”   

So, IT, keep the keys to the heavy machinery, but hey guys, make friends and do yourself a favor. The dole and control model isn’t coming back.

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