Is the IT department the barrier to becoming a Post Digital company?

Forbes has argued that every company is now a software company to some degree. But how many companies are ready to enter the digital era and stop treating digital devices as something to be managed and controlled?

Forbes’s Techonomy site carried a fascinating piece arguing that every company is becoming a software company to some degree. The core of the argument is this:

Regardless of industry  your company is now a software company, and pretending that it’s not spells serious peril. With hardware and software growing more capable at exponential rates, data of all sorts are increasingly getting into the hands of ordinary people—competitors, employees and, especially, customers. Extraordinarily sophisticated tools of measurement, analysis and communication allow these empowered hordes to evaluate, process and distribute the data, along with their opinions about it. Ordinary people increasingly have tools that match and in some cases exceed the sophistication of those used inside the companies that serve them.

This idea is deeply Post Digital. Powerful, sophisticated computing tools are all around us. I have three with me as I type this on a train – a laptop, a tablet and a smartphone. They are no longer something remarkable, something that the company had to provide for you or you wouldn’t be able to use tools of that level. But I have a feeling that this transition to a Post Digital company is going to be a painful one. This is a deep and profound cultural shift for many businesses, a fact the Forbes piece highlights:

One well-respected executive recently quit the board of a natural gas giant, I’m told by someone directly familiar with the matter, specifically because he felt the company was not responding with sufficient urgency to Picarro-like information about methane leaks.

Most businesses are just not equipped to deal with rapid shifts in the information ecology around their main areas of operation. And that’s because they’re still bound by decisions made in an earlier age, an age when computers were a luxury, internet access a rarity and the consequences of multiple employees having access to information technology were unknown. And so, quite reasonably, IT departments were constructed to control costs and usage, to make sure that these new, expensive tools didn’t cost the business too much, or expose it to too much risk. This was a policy for an age where digital tools were remarkable, with a price to match.

Those days are long gone.

The majority of IT departments are still in “command and control” mode, used to determining exactly which devices and which software people get to use. Is that sustainable? Very few companies get to determine exactly the clothes we wear to the office, and fewer still which cars we drive to get there. Even company cars are chosen from a range.

The approach is certainly under siege. The arrival of iPad and iPhone in people’s bags and pockets mean that they have personal devices with them that are powerful enough to do the majority of what most workers need, which often have their own internet connections and which are people’s preferred device. They are using these devices for work, creating an ecosystem of devices used for business purposes that aren’t beholden to the IT department in the same way that the corporate PC and the BlackBerry were.

So were do we go from here? I suspect that the traditional corporate IT function is in decline, and will eventually drop to the handful of people needed to run something like – say – and traditional corporate phone system (which is itself under threat, squeezed between VoIP systems like Skype, and the omnipresent smartphone). Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) will rapidly become the norm. And, even as the IT management team declines, a new department will rise, one dedicated to informing the business’s strategy in realtime and facilitating customer needs, rather than controlling employees. And doesn’t that sound like a more interesting place to work?