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How to Bridge Organizational Divides and Build a Cloud-Enabled Enterprise

This post also appeared on LinkedIn.

Progressive enterprises are transforming infrastructure to become cloud-based. It seems straightforward: Remove legacy hardware and software, replace it with PaaS, IaaS, and SaaS, then enjoy the accompanying agility, reduced complexity, and lower costs.

But digital transformation isn't trivial. The enterprise challenge isn't normally the technology. It's often the new levels of collaboration required between teams supporting legacy infrastructure and workflows, along with the impact on the overall culture of an organization. Migration to a cloud-based infrastructure requires teamwork across all disciplines of IT and in most instances every business unit within an enterprise: Teams must work together to prioritize (newly-)shared company objectives. And breaking down organizational silos to make that happen can require herculean efforts to unite corporate factions. The hard reality of successful digital transformation can require collaboration skills worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Legacy IT culture kills collaboration

In setting corporate goals, company leaders don't always prioritize crucial IT infrastructure. They pay attention to IT when the infrastructure 1) fails, or 2) hinders a necessary business pivot. Perhaps as a result, IT culture, by nature, tends to be reactive: Running complex legacy systems to try to support business goals is an exercise in ongoing crisis management. Today, enterprise leaders place more demands on legacy infrastructures—often with little-to-no input from the teams that manage them. It’s no wonder that IT teams can feel jumpy. 

This dichotomy of expectations derives in part from the fact that many (if not most) CIOs come from application-development backgrounds. And application development is typically critical-path for an organization and tied directly to business goals and company milestones. 

But the IT infrastructure team often gets left out of strategic business discussions and then left to their own devices (literally). Networks built in response to ad-hoc demands are often stitched together, with little strategic cohesion, and as a result of several tactical decisions over the span of years that all seemed right at the time. The networks embody a dysfunctional silo model: Even within the IT structure itself, different teams (security, network infrastructure, endpoint management, etc.) have different agendas. They may not collaborate efficiently, and end up developing tools and resources that only meet the immediate needs of their immediate area. Each team runs systems it knows using vendors with whom it’s comfortable. 

But this siloed, legacy-system-dependent culture doesn’t work for cloud-enabled businesses. IT leaders in cloud-enabled organizations manage the consumption of services. IT leaders at companies burdened by legacy infrastructure must oversee complex, disparate, and often-incompatible technology fiefdoms. The move to cloud-based business blurs the lines between infrastructure responsibilities and business goals, forcing teams to collaborate in new ways. 

Virtualization isn’t always the easy answer in this case. As IT leads start moving business processes and infrastructure to the cloud (truly to the cloud, not just to a single database or application), teams often stick to what they know: adopting virtual desktops delivered from data centers, VPNs for clients/private peering points, agents on end devices, virtual appliances sitting in IaaS platforms. Though their individual solutions might technically be in the cloud, their choices do little to make the organization more agile, and they preserve siloed processes (and thinking).

Enabling cloud-based infrastructure: new teams, new skills, new cooperation

The cloud-enabled business needs cloud architects and operations people who command a broader range of skill sets and prioritize service consumption over building internal infrastructure. But most of all, they need to learn how to play well with other teams and corporate leaders.

A company I worked for wanted to expand business to South America. The fastest and least expensive way would be to acquire a South American company, then onboard its assets and workforce. After the deal was completed, my IT team was called in to integrate infrastructure. We were assigned a specific budget, one that was woefully inadequate given the legacy infrastructures in place. No one from IT had been consulted pre-acquisition, mainly because IT was not considered a critical business partner (yet). It’s almost like the business looked at IT as a necessary evil—one in which they invested millions, but still questioned the overall value IT brought to the business. 

For the benefit of the organization, leaders need to foster an inclusive environment. That means including key IT stakeholders in both higher-level architecture discussions and higher-level business conversations—with some parameters. The discussion must center around what the enterprise needs, not what services current vendors can provide. This may require a willingness on the part of senior management to “get uncomfortable” with new processes and technologies. 


Document the future

Companies must establish—more importantly, publish—a vision for future architecture. It should be more than a technical overview: The architecture must align with business objectives, and the architecture document (the CIO I served under called it the IT 2.0 Manifesto) should reflect how the new infrastructure supports core business objectives. In this document, it’s important to note how legacy architecture is specifically holding back innovation to demonstrate to IT and business leaders the importance of change. This map can elevate new ideas, new technologies, and new infrastructure, and extend IT teams’ focus beyond their specific discipline: If a technology limits agility, disrupt it; seek solutions that break with old practices; and acknowledge that contracts and relationships with current software and hardware vendors shouldn’t be a reason to maintain the status quo.

An example of the IT 2.0 Manifesto in any organization should clearly define expectations for employee duties, team responsibilities, and inter-team collaboration. What are peoples’ roles going to be moving forward? Individual team members’ uncertainty over future contributions will kill innovation if fears aren’t addressed:

  • Explain the process. Document the enterprise vision and why it’s important. Make the vision public and open for feedback.  
  • Show the roadmap. Along with the vision, layout clear goals, steps, and milestones for achieving cloud-enabled processes. Demonstrate accountability. 
  • Plot success. Make sure that everyone affected has a specified role in the process and the roadmap. The cloud-enabled enterprise challenges peoples’ old everyday “normal.” Address people’s concerns./
  • Support success. Have a plan for the tools, mentorship, and team enablement necessary for moving forward. Make these things easily accessible and leave space for recommendations. 

IT must become an engine for solving business problems, not an excuse for maintaining the status quo. Rather than build infrastructure using well-known tools, software, hardware, and services, focus on consuming IT infrastructure in the cloud, and delivering those capabilities to the business you support. These solutions will blur the boundaries for each discipline within IT. Center ownership in one team, but make sure all teams own the (broader) goal. Evaluate changes based not just on immediate needs, but on future scaling as well—this will force that broader collaboration amongst almost every IT discipline. 

Cloud connects siloed teams in much the same way it connects users to applications

Enterprises must adopt a consumption-in-the-cloud model of operations to become more agile, efficient, and productive. For cloud-enabled enterprises, the present and the future is a connectivity architecture based on the internet, perimeter-less cloud security, and critical business systems running outside of an enterprise boundary. Siloed IT teams dependent on siloed technology must learn to collaborate with other teams to achieve unified business goals. IT leaders accustomed to dealing with only the technology they understand and the vendors they like will have to adapt to a new way of running things. IT must support the goals of the enterprise, and that means quick agility and rapid flexibility. 

IT leaders must bring this thinking from the top down. Planning must include IT team members in the development of a new vision. Leadership must show how this new vision includes a place for everyone if they are willing to think differently about their role in achieving the goals of the business. Everyone should understand the goal of the organization and what role they will play in its future. When that happens the overall IT organization becomes a true partner to the business and the traditional silos within IT that hindered progress in the past are broken by the sheer nature of being forced to collaborate with each other in new ways.


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