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Close an IT infrastructure, open a digital platform

by Mark P. McDonald  |  December 17, 2012  |  2 Comments

Digital technologies are worth less individually.  They are worth everything when connected to enterprise information and transaction capabilities.  That is a rather esoteric statement, so consider a mobile phone with apps.  Alone the phone is helpful, you can call people, consult maps, etc.  But that phone and those apps are worth more when they are connected to core systems – even just connected to core email systems.

The same applies for cloud-based solutions.  Standalone they are great, but soon the request comes to integrate them with other ‘legacy’ applications and information.  Why because together they are worth more.  Together they transform the business.  Those connections create new digital combinations that change legacy infrastructure into a digital platform.

A digital platform is the collection of enterprise technology capacities accessible to digital technologies.  Those capacities include enterprise information, transaction processing, business rules, and scale connectivity and compute power.

Traditionally CIOs and IT call these resources ‘infrastructure’, but in the future they will need to think of them as a platform.    The terminology shift sounds semantic, but it reflects a different attitude and approach to planning, managing and investing in core technology assets.

Here is the idea.

Infrastructure is episodic, fragmented and transparent with fickle funding

Infrastructure is often considered as a collection of IT resources, hardware, systems software, legacy applications, etc. operated by IT to deliver low cost high quality services.  Infrastructure costs are transparent, either in the IT budget or in the cost allocations applied to business budgets. Infrastructure is managed as a set of things and changed through the normal IT budgeting and governance processes.

IT has to get funding and agreement from the business to invest infrastructure at the expense of investing in other business systems.  This means that too often infrastructure changes as a series of ad hoc projects, incremental and episodic that can artificially limit future business capabilities.  If the enterprise has to wait to do something until IT gets the infrastructure in place, then you know what I mean.

Platforms can be planned, integrated and dark with allocated funding

A platform is different.  Different in the sense that it’s the same set of resources, but managed differently.  As mentioned above a platform is a collection of enterprise technology capacities accessible to digital technologies.  It is a set of services provided by an opaque operation (formerly known as infrastructure) that is planned like a software product, funded independently and coordinated with the enterprise digital strategy.

Rather than competing for funding and creating pre-requisite roadblocks to new digital capabilities, managing a platform creates a stream of services that support business strategy and smooth investment requirements over time.  Yes this is largely done through management.  Yes it is still the same old underlying resources.  However managing those resources as a platform can make all the difference in the world.

Consider the following question, when will your company support location based services?  If the answer is, when we create a proposal, get the funding, assemble the team and associate it with a business initiative, then you are running an infrastructure.  You are waiting for the right situation to make the investment, even if you know that investment is inevitable.  By managing an infrastructure you open yourself up to the real possibility that the demand for the new capability will come at the absolute worst time – when you are busy with other things and do not have the skills or resources to deliver.

Now, if you know that location based services are a key capability, managing a platform gives you the ability to say when those capabilities will be available provided the enterprise gives you consistent funding.  Consider the difference, it may seem slight, but with a platform IT has the ability to get on the front foot, to say when something will happen rather than wait for the business to ask for it to happen.

That is the way digital companies work with roadmaps about how their platform will change over time, when new features and functions become available, etc.

Managing a platform of capabilities across time, plugs IT into the strategy in a different way – much like product strategy.  Managing a platform gives the CIO the ability to manage skills and resources and you know when, where and what the enterprise needs going forward.  Finally managing a platform makes capability and capacity available now or as soon as its ready rather than engaging in a cycle of incremental investments and point solutions.

Closing the infrastructure and opening a platform

Closing down your infrastructure, making the components opaque to the business and concentrating on the timing and performance of services takes work at the management and technical level.  Opening a platform, managing it in coordination but separation from the rest of IT seems costly, complex and convoluted.  After all isn’t it all IT.  Yes it used to be all IT, but increasingly not with digital technology.

Digital technologies consume information, support capabilities and transform experiences for customers, associates and executives.  They do that in combination with core enterprise information and processing capabilities not in isolation from them.  This is a fundamental reality of a digital edge.  So-called ‘legacy’ resources are central to digital performance, capability, capacity and efficiency.  Managing these resources as a digital platform rather than a collection of infrastructures describes one of the ways CIOs can think through IT’s role in a digital world.

Yes there is more to this idea than renaming, reorganizing, and separating infrastructure into a platform.  More on that in latter posts but consider the idea and how it changes enterprise perspectives on what used to be IT infrastructure.

Related posts on Digital Technology

Digital Business: How Technology Will Support Growth – Forbes

Digital Strategy Does Not Equal IT Strategy – Mark P. McDonald – Harvard Business Review

Feeling digital is not the same a being digital

Digital substitution or digital combination?

Creating a difference between digital, digitize and digitalization.

A note, the new eBook — The Digital Edge talks about platforms as well as how organizations create digital solutions that drive revenue. It is available on Amazon, iBooks and at Barnes and Noble.  

Category: 2013  digital-edge  digitalization  technology  

Tags: 2013-planning  digital-edge  digitalization  digitization  it-leadership  it-management  technology-leadership  

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a Vice President and Fellow Emeritus in Gartner for General Managers Program.

Thoughts on Close an IT infrastructure, open a digital platform

  1. Adam Cole says:

    There is another important distinction between infrastructure and platforms which is also strictly conceptual. Infrastructure suggests an end-point; whereas a platform suggests a starting-point. Infrastructure is a collection of technologies and services with often complex and brittle connections; a platform is an opaque box upon which higher-order solutions and particularly data sharing and collaboration take place. From a design perspective, thinking of weaving core technology and services together as a platform rather than as an infrastructure leads to a more modular, open yet secure, future-proofed environment. This is similar to developers who think of their modules in a generic (platform) sense as opposed to thinking of the specific, one-off use-case.

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