With the role of IT constantly evolving, and with new technologies introduced seemingly every day, how can IT professionals develop a plan that sets them up for success not only in 2016, but also over the next five years?
The key is to focus less on identifying and acquiring new skills and technical experience -- though that's extremely important -- and emphasize big-picture thinking, says Cory Chaplin, director of Technology Integration Practice for business and technology consulting firm West Monroe Partners.
"There's no crystal ball that can tell you, me or anyone what specific skills and technologies are going to be hot in six months, in a year, in five years. But there are some things we can predict. We are seeing demands and needs expand, so that clients aren't looking for extremely specialized talent but for IT pros who are experts on whole solutions or entire technology domains rather than just one product, technology or language," Chaplin says.
For example, a mobile developer who can work on multiple platforms, devices, operating systems and deployment types rather than just a single-OS approach; or a front-end developer who can design and build multiple types of Web applications, according to Chaplin.
[ Related stories: How to build a culture of learning (and why you need to) ]
Collaborate and align
The IT department of the future will also see greater interaction with the people who use the technology they create, both end-users within their organization and external customers, Chaplin says.
"More developers will be required to attend early-stage meetings with customers and end-users and interact with them, to discuss use cases, requirements as well as business and strategy initiatives. Developers will have to be more concerned with business alignment and why they're working on certain projects and initiatives, instead of just accepting a to-do list and working through it," Chaplin says.
Much of this shift toward greater collaboration and business alignment is driven by the millennial generation, which, by the end of 2015 makes up the largest generation currently in the workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Millennials aren't satisfied just to take orders from their superiors and follow them; they demand to know the rationale behind tasks, projects and business initiatives, Chaplin says.
"Historically it has been OK to 'just' stay within the boundaries of IT without understanding how your work impacts the business. But now there's a realization that IT has to get involved in these larger strategy discussions, and to understand the larger mission and purpose. It's become less of an us-versus-them mentality and more of a partnership with business and IT leadership," Chaplin says.
For IT leaders, this is a major shift that requires much more time and patience, but the extra effort pays off with increased effort, greater productivity and even better products, Chaplin says.
"My role over the last six or seven years has absolutely changed. I now spend more time up front to detail to my teams what clients are trying to accomplish. But I've noticed that giving them that mission and purpose drives everyone to be better. My teams go home at night or over the weekend and they work on these problems voluntarily. They're excited, they're engaged, they are so invested, and that means we end up with better features, functionality and happier clients," Chaplin says.
[ Related stories: Why soft skills are key to a successful IT career ]
Focus on user satisfaction
The IT department of the future will also need to focus on user satisfaction as a metric for success, which means not only striking a balance between innovation and integrating new technologies, but also with "housekeeping" and maintenance of existing solutions, says Chaplin.
In a survey of nearly 100,000 IT professionals at all levels, IT and HR performance management and consulting firm Green Elephant found that user satisfaction with IT can impact IT's perceived business value -- and that IT needs to remake itself and its image into that of a trusted service provider.
"IT needs to do some marketing and consider users as they do consumers. Is IT delivering only 80 percent of a service without following through? Are they rude? Inefficient? You're providing IT services to your users, and so 'brand' is so important. If your users aren't seeing the value in your services, then the company as a whole isn't going to think that IT has any value," says Simon Chapleau, CEO of Green Elephant.
To change that, IT will have to focus on measurement and accountability, Chapleau says. By measuring user satisfaction with IT, and allowing users to grade the services they're receiving, IT can focus on what needs improvement and, in the process, get more done.
"If you're only measuring things like calls to the help desk, closed tickets and time-to-close-incidents and basing productivity stats on those, then that's what will get the interest and the investment from your IT teams. However, if you are including user satisfaction and happiness in there, if you're giving IT a little more time and space to resolve issues to users' satisfaction, then you'll see improvement across the board," Chapleau says.
What the future holds
The IT department of the future will continue to focus on new technology, new software and hardware and the 'hottest' new skills. But underneath it all, tomorrow's IT departments will emphasize breadth of knowledge, the human connection and increased collaboration, and user satisfaction.
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.