Key Technology Labor Is Not a Commodity

By Donald Sears  |  Posted 2010-02-07 Print this article Print

A January Forbes article got me thinking on what is considered low-level work in technology these days. Ed Sperling's piece "Rebalancing Your IT Staff" is a smart article aimed at CIOs explaining to them that the real value of outsourcing is the ability to free your technology staff to become a richer part of a business' core competitive landscape--and that this value is evolving and the right talent is hard to find.

Rid your budget of the low-level stuff through outsourcing and make IT high-level and responsive to business and customer needs. Sperling wrote:

You don't do better as a company because your IT staff manages its own Oracle database or network infrastructure. If someone else can do it as well or better for less money, there's a business reason to make that happen.

But CIOs also need to be turning those savings to good use, and that means hiring in other areas. The real value for IT inside a company these days isn't managing the low-level stuff. It's finding new ways to grow business units and to enable communication across an enterprise.

I concur, but it's the difference between the dream and the reality. The issue I have is in Sperling's assertion that managing network infrastructure and Oracle databases are "low-level."

I think Sperling sees some very complex, important technology management as maintenance--and some of it is undoubtedly. But he, like many business-centric proponents, are missing a key point: There is crucial customization that goes along with the maintenance of databases and network infrastructure, and it is not a simplistic commodity skill.

I understand the cost-benefit of outsourcing, and believe there are very real ways you can rent services to augment your IT staff, but most enterprises have to have many of the crucial database and networking skills on hand to handle the needs of the business. There is little way around it.

These technologies can be expensive to manage, but any CIO worth his paycheck understands the following issues: A customized environment being maintained is the difference between internal or external customers having productive experiences or not and there is an impact on business when response and reaction are not aggressive.

Additionally, the CIO understands that security is mission-critical. The security of databases and network infrastructure are never to be taken lightly--outsourced or not. Ask Heartland Payment Systems or TJX or Google if they had a renewed focus on securing data after major, publicly embarrassing data breaches.

Calling vital functions that may relate to customer or proprietary data "low level" undermines the importance of IT work. Remember, no two companies or two outsourcing shops set up their network or database infrastructure in the same exact way. Every organization has its own unique infrastructure and will require a customized approach.

There are ways to partner with an outsourcer so that it is an extension of that customized environment. But trying to make skilled IT workers who have invested in training and years of the on-the-job knowledge in to product managers or business analysts is missing the point of IT.

IT is in a constant state of balancing the maintenance of technologies with business needs--especially in lean economic times. Don't belittle skilled work with "low-level" language.

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