John Simcock: Is it time for charity IT teams to loosen their grip?

Spreading IT expertise throughout your organisation could be the way forward, writes our columnist

John Simcock
John Simcock

I’ve recently spoken to a number of charities that say they can see themselves reducing the size of their digital departments soon. Not because they don’t value digital expertise, but because they want that expertise to spread through the rest of the organisation rather than stay in one department. It’s the ultimate and logical conclusion of "digital transformation".

And it got me thinking, given that digital and IT often walk hand in hand these days, whether IT departments should be devolving responsibility in this way too.

The notion might seem a bit odd at first. It would mean non-IT people taking responsibility for specifying applications and connecting systems, for example.

But is it such a crazy idea? I don’t believe it is. And right now, there is a real need to try something new.

A change for the better?

For a long time, charity business leads have bemoaned the fact that they can’t make better use of IT, data in particular. Their frustration has come about because data is trapped in back-end systems that are controlled by IT, which means the information can’t be used to drive personalised user experiences in the way that the likes of Amazon do in the private sector, for example.

Could the solution lie in the possibility of IT giving up some of that control? One way to do this and ease the old frustrations would be to provide the business with managed access to those systems through defined interfaces, or APIs. 

It won’t be an easy decision. It will mean IT departments giving up control of a domain they’ve long held sacred. But the benefits could be huge. For example, it would help user departments build their own applications and connect easily to others.

And you could also argue that this kind of "shadow IT" is already happening. Mobile apps, for example, are often developed by web and mobile design agencies with or without the IT department’s knowledge. However, the problem so far has been that without a connection to core back-end systems, such apps are somewhat limited and have often lacked a fulfilling experience. 

To solve this impasse, you really need to create two types of IT. One is run by the IT team and focuses on managing and maintaining core back-end systems. The other, driven by business users, works in an agile way to create value quickly – for example, they could use existing APIs for registering events to highlight events that are yet to hit critical mass and need further support.

Sooner or later, it’s possible that users are going to demand this ability anyway, because it’s something they’re soon going to realise they can do easily at home and in their personal lives. Services such as "If this, then that" (, for example, allow anyone to easily connect all sorts of services and apps they use in their personal lives. As services like this grow in terms of awareness and popularity, people are going to ask, quite reasonably, why can’t I do this at work?

Of course, I’m not pretending all this can be done at the flick of switch, and clearly there are risks. You need to ask critical questions, such as who has access to which API, what data can they view and what data can they change? But these issues are not insurmountable. In fact, well-known organisations (see this Rentokil example here) are already showing that you can open up users' access to back-end systems without harm. And in doing so, they are really driving new business value.

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