IT is no longer a service provider to other departments allowing them to do what they have always done but more quickly and efficiently. IT is now a business driver enabling fundamentally new and innovative ways of working.

In the early days of information technology in business applications, the IT function was one of basic support to increase reliability and efficiency. Think of the way a calculator made mathematical operations faster and easier; the introduction of computer infrastructure similarly brought benefits for business efficiencies with PLCs (programmable logic controllers) and mainframes for operations. Personal computers eventually enabled major increases in individual efficiency as well but at heart people’s jobs didn’t change. A computer just allowed them to do the same things faster.

Today’s IT functions continue to provide these benefits, but also go far beyond that. IT is now integral to business strategy and an innovative IT department is a key competitive advantage. Big data and the potential for AI are great examples of this.

Leveraging Information Technology For Business Advancement

With the continual push for greater amounts of data on smaller bits of hardware, it now now possible to collect vast amounts of operational and customer data, so called “big data,”. When properly analysed, big data has been shown to be extremely valuable, in both internal and external business applications. Consider these big data opportunities:

Micro-marketing – data analysis enables marketing automation to serve ever smaller niches and put the right offerings in front of potential customers when they’re ready to make a purchase. For example, a department store can push targeted deals based on known personal information to a specific customer’s mobile phone when she enters the store.

New technologies – AI, artificial intelligence, is becoming a reality, with bots capable of interfacing with customers for providing information, placing orders, and solving problems.

Logistics – Amazon is a great example of growing a huge business by leveraging IT competency. On the sell side, big data lets Amazon tell consumers “you might like this, because you bought that” and “others who bought this also bought that”, the ultimate in cross-selling presence. Behind the scenes, Amazon’s IT infrastructure pulls product from a massive global supply chain to deliver most products within two days, with customer tracking from the moment of sale.

It’s important to note that collecting the data is the simplest aspect of the big data process. The true value comes from knowing how to “slice and dice” it to provide actionable opportunities to the business. This is especially relevant as the cost of BI tools, like Excel Power BI and Power Pivot, is continuing to reduce the cost of BI solutions dramatically and make it available to any user that has learned the basics of Excel BI.

Maintaining A Competitive & Compassionate Business Presence

Several IT functions are mandatory to allow the business to simply stay in the game. It’s important for companies to match transactional capabilities to consumer needs. As customers have moved from brick-and-mortar shopping to web-based interface to mobile and voice, businesses have had to offer highly functional user interfaces with effective ties to back-office operations. Incorporating capabilities for user-friendly payment with systems such as Apple Pay, PayPal, Square Cash, and Venmo gives customers ever greater purchasing power.

Security and privacy are two important issues for customers across all organisations. Because companies have access to so much personal information in the data they collect, they must ensure that they have secure systems that protect the data from inappropriate access. This is not a one-and-done effort because outside hackers are constantly working on new capabilities to break through existing firewalls and security systems, requiring business IT teams to scramble to stay ahead.

Similarly the privacy function is critical to maintain customer confidence. While it is valuable to mine the data gathered, including sometimes providing aggregate data to other organisations, the IT team must ensure that any data sharing complies with the company’s strategy—and the country’s laws—and does not inadvertently release individual data.

Businesses today work to enhance their corporate social responsibility (CSR) position, demonstrating that they are “good” companies, trying to improve in environmental impact, human rights and other areas desired by customers and shareholders. The IT function comes into play in several elements of CSR, such as defining and implementing an infrastructure that minimises operational energy utilisation—for example, in minimising server energy footprints—and in creating new “green” e-products.

The Human Side Of IT Contributions

Because many business leaders can’t be bothered with the IT function, they may miss out on early recognition of the incredible favourable impact technology can have on the business. IT folks are uniquely positioned to improve this situation by making personal contributions to the business.

State-of-the-art knowledge – In their personal lives, many IT folks are early adopters who love to learn about the latest in technology products and concepts. Their awareness of imminent capabilities can help the business set strategy and tactics to leverage the next wave of operational or customer-driven changes.

Systems thinking – The structured thinking required of IT folks in areas of logical design and process operations often gives them enhanced skills in problem solving. This can be utilized in teams across multiple functions. IT project management skills such as those used in agile product development are also transferable to other operations.

Decision making – Specifically in the areas of investment decisions around equipment and technology, IT people need to play a part in assessing and recommending alternatives that will provide the best forward-looking solutions regarding energy, cost, efficiency, and customer capability. This may involve in-house or outsourced tech resources, making or buying technology, and utilizing external hardware such as servers or analysis resources.

If You’re In IT, What Can You Do?

The stereotypical characterisation of an IT employee has been a bookish introvert who is quite content to work in “black box” mode, delivering code to meet assigned specs. In reality, with the challenges and opportunities businesses now face in the IT arena, it’s vitally important that IT employees proactively join other functional leaders in defining the organisation’s future. This can start at every level of IT engagement, with IT personnel developing the assertiveness skills to participate in and lead projects leveraging their unique content knowledge. If George Orwell were around today, he might well be saying, “Who controls the information, controls the world.”