For much of the last decade IT has become something of a pantomime villain, frequently held responsible as the inhibitor holding back business. But our research shows that IT is rarely considered by business managers as the major brake on bringing out new services. Even so, there are clearly matters that must be addressed if CIOs are to enable their organisations to exploit new opportunities as quickly as possible. Many of these are linked, in various dimensions, to change management.

One area that stands out concerns the speed at which IT is able to implement updates or new versions of existing systems and applications. For as long as I have been involved in IT as a professional, and that’s nearly three decades, there has been an unwritten commandment: “thou shalt not install version x.0 of anything”.

In the past, this philosophy had advantages as it was frequently the case that major software updates could, and frequently did, contain significant bugs along with a host of minor niggles. But is this still a valid way to act in today’s business environment where every advantage possible needs to be swiftly extracted from IT systems?

A number of factors indicate that the safety-first days of waiting for a ‘bug fix’ or ‘service pack’ before thinking about upgrading to a major release of software may be over.  Chief amongst these is that the majority of major software vendors now run development processes that deliver more robust software by design. In addition, testing systems have improved greatly in recent years, especially the ability to automate many tasks. Overall quality of enterprise grade software on release is now usually considerably better than in the past (even if this isn’t true of a lot of mobile stuff and cloud services that are in ‘perpetual beta’).

One example that illustrates this is evident in the release of Microsoft’s Server 2012 platform and its associated management tools. Over the past couple of months Freeform Dynamics interviewed a number of organisations who formed part of the Rapid Deployment Program (RDP) that allows companies early access to Microsoft’s software.

The participants in such a programme form an atypical group, and such communities can hold more extreme opinions, either positive or negative, on the solution than the broader user base. In this case nearly every interviewee saw advantages in rolling out the software into production use very rapidly rather than holding back waiting for the first ‘service pack’ to arrive.

Modifying the way people think about things that have become ingrained is not easy, but there will undoubtedly be a need for CIOs reconsider what's acceptable or desirable when it comes to the frequency of software revisions from key suppliers. Indeed, if you go down the cloud services route and take advantage of multi-tenant services, this is something you’ll have to get used to anyway.

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With multi-tenant SaaS services in particular, providers can’t delay mods and enhancements until all their customers confirm they are ready. You need to accept that updates, often containing significant functional alterations, will be rolled out on very short time frames, three or four times a year, or perhaps even more frequently. In fact some providers are moving towards almost continuous rollout functional developments.

But even if IT systems are evolving to make it more straightforward to handle ‘updates’ rapidly, are management processes able to handle such a high pace of change? It is clear that making significant alterations to line of business IT services needs careful management. But with the pressure on IT to react more quickly to change requests, CIOs need to make sure that their processes are up to it.

While the ‘testing’ cannot be overlooked, it is clear that some organisations are still utilising change management processes that have not been modified for years. This is significant because the days when change management had to cater for systems that would be fixed for years are coming to an end. We are now in an era where flexibility is a major driver, and that needs to be reflected in the way we handle the deployment of upgrades. Not all changes are likely to have equal impact, so adopting a variable approach where some system updates can be fast tracked is a matter CIOs should investigate.

But it is not just IT that needs to modify its approach to change management; business users and stakeholders need be encouraged to be more flexible as well. Indeed, such flexibility may even mean the organisation has to remodel how IT is funded, especially with the potential that various forms of cloud solutions offer in terms of effective resource utilisation and flexibility.

Even how users are trained is a matter that must be addressed with software possibly never standing still in terms of functionality for even six months, never mind five years. To take advantage of new opportunities quickly CIOs need to get business managers talking about how they themselves must be prepared for rapid change and how to pay for it. This looks like a political/communication challenge as much as technological in nature, but that’s what makes running IT so interesting, isn’t it?

Tony Lock is programme director at Freeform Dynamics