In all the excitement over the latest developments in IT—whether it is a new technology (cloud) or practice (DevOps) or role (Chief Digital Officer)—our industry often loses sight of the reality of doing day-to-day information technology (IT) in mundane organizations. Dreams are dreamt and expectations are set which don’t gel with our experience in our day jobs. We in IT are in a difficult position when the reality is more complicated than that.
The DevOps community talks about “unicorns and horses.” Unicorns are the special organizations that do amazing, almost mythical things because of their special conditions (Amazon, Google, Apple, Netflix …). The horses are the rest of us.
There is a term to describe the world of the horses: RealIT. "RealIT" (reality, it’s a pun, get it?) is the application of information and technology to the functioning of an organization. Never mind the unicorns. RealIT is about using IT to execute an organization's mission in more typical enterprises.
IT Is About Layers
The Information Technology sector is layered into interacting industries, and RealIT is one layer. It's the core of what we typically think of as "IT." RealIT operates as a sourcer and integrator of services. Currently it also acts as a manufacturer and supplier of many IT services, though part of that role with shrink over time thanks to outsourcing. But IT is not going away, all organizations will have an internal IT function forever. Somebody somewhere will have responsibility for overseeing and governing the information and its technology, just as they do for HR, finance or facilities.
In the layer above RealIT, we have the users of IT service. RealIT is the intermediary to those users whose service matters to the organization: internal staff and external customers who consume enterprise information.
The layer below RealIT includes the service aggregators, outsourcers and resellers who offer a commercial model for IT supply to organizations.
Note: there is much talk about how our colleagues—"the business"—will go to suppliers directly to get IT (this is called Shadow IT). If this is not done with the involvement and consent of the IT function of the enterprise, then I like to call it “Dark IT.” Dark IT is an astonishing failure of corporate governance. We don't allow business units to go arrange their own finance willy-nilly, nor should we allow them to arrange IT.
Finally, the bottom layer includes the manufacturers of IT products and services. Many manufacturers also act as suppliers by selling directly. As aggregation-as-a-service grows (often called SIAM for Service Integration and Management), we'll see more manufacturers separated by a layer from RealIT.
When people talk about IT these days, the term is used to mean any or all of these layers. That's why I have started referring to RealIT—to focus on the reality of applying IT to business, enterprise and organizational outcomes.
What RealIT Is Not
Sometimes it’s easier to define something by what it’s not. If you want to carve a statue of an elephant, take a block of stone and chip off everything that’s not elephant. Let’s look at what is not RealIT.
RealIT is not about the industry of providing IT services to other people: a managed IT service provider, a hosting company, Amazon Web Services, Gmail... Somewhere within those organizations, there will be RealIT. There will be their internal financial and payroll and HR and manufacturing systems, and all the application of information and its technology to the running of the supplier’s business. That’s RealIT. But the service they provide to their customers—IT as a service—is not RealIT because they have commercial imperatives to do it differently, to do it better.
Nor is RealIT about the mega-billion-dollar consumer retail industry. What Apple does is not RealIT. How a company like Apple delivers high-tech products and services has no relevance whatsoever to how ordinary “horses” run their IT. The next person who tells me that I need to have a genius bar or downloadable social apps for all the internal systems used by staff is going to hear a few choice words.
So RealIT is about real organizations doing real business, using information and its technology to effectively operate. They’re using IT to do something else, and that something else is within our normal domain of experience: transport, banking, finance, insurance, government, health, mining and so on.
RealIT isn't usually about speed; it’s not the hysterical frenzy of the startup or of the retail technology vendor. RealIT mostly isn't about innovation or competitiveness. RealIT isn't about novelty and attractiveness and pandering to the desires of the users. These are viewpoints which are more important in the other parts of the value chain, those other layers of the IT industry in our picture.
Instead RealIT is mostly doing the day job, keeping the enterprise running. That job is about balancing the conflicting duties of "To Protect and Serve," acting as custodian of the massive existing investment in information and its technology, whilst also serving the changing needs of the organization.
Unicorns, Horses and Mules … Oh My
To the “unicorns and horses” model we can add “mules”: long-lived, tough, carrying heavy loads—old-school IT organizations with lots of legacy systems, probably a mainframe, traditional practices, and conservative management. “Mule” is not meant as an insult: I respect mules as the ones with the hardest job of all. For mules, the mapping of these exciting new developments to their reality is even more challenging.
We all want IT to be exciting and fresh and new, but for most of us it’s serious. The reality of RealIT is about solving the hard problems of protecting what we have while moving forward safely at the pace of business.
There are ways to find the balance between value and risk, between nimbleness and stability, to act in the best interests of our enterprise’s information and technology. In future articles, we’ll look at what RealIT means to the adoption of new ideas, and how we can manage the conflicting demands of protecting and serving.