IT vs Digital.

I have been thinking recently about the difference between an IT team and a “Digital” team.

UNDP has a Chief Digital Office, but also has an IT department called ITM (Office of Information and Technology Management ) that sits within the BMS (Bureau of Management Services).

A lot of the clients that we have at Mäd, especially banks, have the same setup as well: a digital product team and an IT team.

Is this a natural way to split things up, or is it because we are in a transition phase in the world where digital transformation is a thing, and once every product is a digital product, then this distinction will cease to exist?

And what is the difference between these two teams? After all, both may have developers or hire consulting firms that have developers, and both deal with technology that may impact internal and external customers.

One analogy that I have heard is that if IT is the engine of the car, then digital is the experience of driving the car. Digital is what you do with the technology that is implemented by IT.

The immediate question that springs to mind is, of course, should these two functions be split at all? Undoubtedly, customer-facing products and services will always interface with internal IT systems to store and retrieve critical data. Would it be best to have one tightly integrated team doing both functions, or should there be a clear split between IT and digital?

The way I have grown to see the difference is that IT is about two key things:

  1. Keeping the lights on — Ensuring that all the core business systems are running smoothly and highly available. Such as ERP, email, networking, internet connections, etc. If these systems go down, suddenly, you may have hundreds or thousands of people twiddling their thumbs until things are back online. If the system is down — your business is down. This is actually more complex than it may appear at first glance. There are system maintenance, upgrades, performance monitoring, security, etc.
  2. Enabling new capabilities — This is about implementing or building new internal systems that will enable completely new capabilities. Think of a bank switching core banking systems or implementing a new digital banking layer that enables the possibility of entirely new customer experiences.

This second point is not a straightforward one to understand, either. Isn’t that just the role of these new “Digital teams”? To bring new capabilities to the business and enable new customer experiences? Well, yes and no. It is likely to be a shared responsibility because customer experiences and systems don’t always align so nicely with your organization chart 😉

For instance, in our hypothetical bank, you may have a mobile application that is entirely managed by the Digital team. They will have product managers, product designers, software engineers, and testers to update and release new features for customers constantly.

This is both the mobile application, and any server technology required to enable these features.

But, the transaction data needs to eventually interplay with the core banking system — the one source of truth for the entire bank. And that is the role of the IT team. So the IT team will be responsible for maintaining the core banking system and developing, maintaining, and documenting APIs for the Digital team to consume in their backend system that powers the mobile app.

So really, everyone needs to be working towards a shared vision of an enhanced customer experience; it cannot just be the IT team working in a “business as usual” way and the Digital team trying to innovate on top of it. This rarely works.

This presents problems, because IT teams will have to learn to move faster than they previously have because now they are not just enabling business operations; they are directly contributing to the end product that customers interact with.

Slow businesses are the ones that die, and speed is often something that should be optimized for when shipping Digital products. The best way to do this is to try and release small but complete features and then learn from customers. And then iterate, repeat the cycle. Your product gets 1% or 2% better every time you release it. Do this 50 times a year, and you have something special going on.

So, how does this leave us with the question I asked earlier? Should IT teams and Digital teams be merged?

Maybe, maybe not.

I think a good approach could be to split the IT team into two, following those two core functions I mentioned earlier: keeping the lights on and enabling new capabilities.

So the “keeping the lights on” crew keep the “IT Team” moniker and do things like ensuring printers are working, the WiFi is fast, emails are provisioned, and refreshing hardware.

The “Enabling New Capabilities” crew gets split away, and joins the Digital Team. They are working on the future of the business, skating to where the puck will be rather than where it is now.

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