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How to reshape IT departments to win in cloud

As cloud computing continues to grow in popularity, businesses must change the way they look at IT. But for some, that's not an easy hurdle to clear.

When it comes to moving toward the cloud, technical staff seems to need the most help to start thinking in terms of clouds. The biggest hurdle for them is getting over the idea that, in this era of clouds and choice, IT is not the customer anymore. IT is about the business.

Say what you want about cloud computing, but it's here to stay. It isn't surprising cloud is popular with senior leadership in companies everywhere. IT has long been the tail that wags the dog, controlling how and when things happen. In the past, the available technology seriously limited a business, so the excuses were justifiable. Today, IT departments have a lot of non-technical reasons to kill a project. However, businesses are tired of being told no with regard to technical requests.

Along came the cloud, and we've had to relearn and remember that IT is a means to an end, not an end by itself. It's a means for parent organization to accomplish its goals. IT is a service inside of an organization, and the organization itself is the customer. Businesses are no longer a captive market, as they now have choices. And those in IT find themselves needing to make decisions that are good for the business, but sometimes not favorable for the IT status quo.

So how do we do that? How does IT maintain its relevance? The first, and slightly paradoxical step, is to stop thinking about technology, and start thinking about people and their respective needs. Get back to basics, start fresh and gather new requirements as if IT has ever existed in our companies before. And gather those requirements from the customers -- the end users, the C-level executives, the line managers and the programmers -- but not IT because IT is not the customer anymore.

None of this is easy. Requirements are hard to gather, as you have to listen to people tell you stories, and tease out the actual requirements from a mishmash of pent up frustration and technical inexperience. You have to listen to complaining and grousing about how IT didn't help someone years ago, so that's why there's a server under the person's desk. You have to listen to business requirements being phrased as technical requirements, and turn those back into business requirements by asking what people need to do, not how they think it should be done -- that's IT's job in all this. And you have to do all this with a smile and humility. "Yeah, we know things can be better, and that's what we're trying to do now with your help."

Gathering requirements is a pain, but once it's done it forms the basis for everything else. IT then gets to do system design and product evaluations, and has a customer-focused yardstick with which to measure and score services. To help adjust the score, management can and should prioritize the requirements. And then IT can build services, using the customer requirements and priority to justify expenditures, as well as demonstrating to the business and the customers where the project is at.

Clouds are just a giant people problem and not a technological issue. It's important that IT takes that people problem seriously by talking to the customers, gathering requirements and remembering that IT is there to serve the business, not the other way around.

Bob Plankers is a virtualization and cloud architect at a major Midwestern university.

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