08/01/2013 01:11 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2013

Why Keeping Your IT Team Focused on Fire-Fighting is Hurting the Business

Most IT teams today know that a good amount of their time is going to be spent doing routine maintenance and fire fighting tasks. Network data demands are growing bigger than ever and, as more companies move to a cloud model, big data is just building on top of that already increasing network demand, causing new worries for IT and taking up more of their time.

That was made clear by a recent survey from Vanson Bourne. Out of the 750 senior IT decision makers surveyed at enterprise-level companies, almost all of them said that they spent more than a third of their time fighting fires rather than carrying out proactive work that could benefit the company. Basically, IT is doing routine maintenance at a time when there are big business opportunities from new tech developments in big data and cloud ... developments that IT has to vet, implement and manage.

The time IT spends fire fighting doesn't just hurt the department, it hurts innovation across the company, because so many solutions today need input from IT. But what's really holding IT back today? And how can that be fixed?

The Obstacle Course of Prior Obligations

The IT department is in a strange place these days. With so much time spent on server and software updates, impromptu tech support and computer maintenance, workers have only so much time to spend trying to improve the network itself.

There's evidence that some companies don't see IT as anything more than a maintenance crew in the first place. The Vanson Bourne survey showed that 80 percent of IT employees aren't able to take a long-term view of the business, because they're always dealing with short-term reactive requirements. Over half (53 percent) said that they didn't even have any insight into the long-term plan for the company.

So, in many businesses, IT is kept in a vacuum. It's hard to focus on strategy, because dealing with the urgent issues has replaced planning for the important ones. The issue is compacted further because of budget cuts -- 69 percent of IT leaders said they are dealing with tighter budgets. That means hiring new staff is out of the question, and so is implementing next-generation technologies that could have far-reaching benefits for the business.

The rigid view of IT's role in the office severely limits the ability of the department to focus on achieving business goals. Most companies won't give IT the time, freedom or budget needed to implement new tools or strategies that contribute to the bottom line... because IT isn't contributing to the bottom line. So, the cycle continues.

This is the wrong approach. The IT department of today has to be flexible, agile and proactive. The most sophisticated tools these days require an in-depth, technical expertise and network experience that is found in the IT department, rather than in marketing or sales. As much anticipation has been built around the increasing responsibilities of the CMO, the CIO is going to play just as big of a role. Forrester VP and principal analyst Marc Cecere has even predicted that CIOs could be more important for transforming businesses in the coming years than the CEO. If IT could better align with business objectives, this could be an unprecedented era of innovation.

Changing the "I" in CIO

Changing IT's responsibilities - and how people traditionally think of the department - first means changing IT's image. The CIOs of tomorrow won't just manage and control the way information is exchanged on the company network. Instead, they'll become true visionaries. "Chief Information Officers" will be replaced with "Chief Innovation Officers." By combining traditional IT practices with technology like big data analytics and cloud computing, these new CIOs will finally be able to break the mold that has kept IT from exploring the department's full capabilities.

Since so many new solutions do require technical knowledge, IT will become an integral part of other business processes, from marketing to customer service and operations. Employees already want to do this, too. Among those surveyed, 45 percent of IT leaders said increasing the flow of information throughout the organization was one of their top three priorities. More than a third said that improving business performance and decision-making was a priority.

Even if the CIO has a new name, that doesn't mean that the traditional concerns about storage capacity and network latency will go away. To truly re-imagine the role of IT in an enterprise, businesses have to think about how the network is structured and how it functions, from the ground-up. As companies add more complicated applications as well as traffic growth, there's a recognition that networking ability is the only way to get full end-to-end big data. Therefore, where companies house these solutions has to be strategic and provide the connectivity that will be needed. Otherwise, you're essentially building a robust capability on a bed of sand.

By combining their existing technical expertise with the freedom to implement new solutions across a network, CIOs will finally be able transform the IT department from reactive to proactive. With IT driving new business objectives and combining large, disparate data sets in real-time, companies could deploy network-wide solutions that lead to better product development, a streamlined supply chain and more accurate forecasting decisions that all make use of the latest technology.

At the end of the day, chief innovation officers have to find ways to bridge the old world of infrastructure-focused IT with the new world of business-focused IT. The first step is leveraging connectivity centers that accommodate the requirements of big data and the cloud without any extra maintenance. Because, once the groundwork is in place, IT can turn their attention away from the prerequisites of all this new technology and start focusing on the business benefits.