Manufacturers must change how they use technology to innovate, or they will be left behind as other, more innovative competitors gain tighter control of their IT environments, and leverage that high-tech capability to drive innovation.
The challenge seen in many manufacturing environments is stagnation. The IT department devotes the bulk of its time in day-to-day functions. And while this keeps the machines going, it doesn't help move the company forward — and a company that doesn't move forward is one that will soon find itself outpaced by the competition. Revenue growth isn't driven by devoting the IT department's time and energy to just keeping the lights on, it is driven by continuous innovation that leads to new product development, improved manufacturing processes, enhanced supply chain management, and cost control.
Rather than assigning execution of day-to-day functions as IT's top priority, the IT department's main function in an innovative manufacturing environment should be to drive positive change. For example, IT should help Marketing know what new products to develop and then help drive the development. Rather than maintaining existing tech-driven manufacturing systems, IT's focus should be on improving them. IT deploys increasingly high-tech manufacturing processes, and ultimately, a highly automated tech-driven environment controls overall costs and improves the bottom line.
The unfortunate scenario of IT staff devoting too much time to ongoing maintenance and routine tasks, and too little to innovation, has come about for a few reasons. Technology, especially in an environment where there are multiple disconnected systems, is more difficult to manage; and further, IT may not have the right resources to manage the technology and is spending too much time on the complexity. This dynamic is further complicated when business units opt to leverage technology directly (Shadow IT) where individual departments roll out their own virtual servers, as-a-service environments and user-focused app development tools. These easy-to-use cloud tools do have a distinct advantage, and the availability of cloud and as-a-service software and hardware has allowed for much easier access to sophisticated services, data tools and decision support platforms, once again driving this manufacturing innovation into the next big era of growth.
Cloud services specific to the manufacturing environment has delivered a host of useful innovation, design and decision support tools which were once available only to the largest enterprises. The lower costs involved have now put these tools into the hands of smaller and mid-size manufacturers — and the result is a manufacturing environment potentially rich in innovation.
At the same time though, the decentralization and lack of oversight and control that "shadow IT" brings into the manufacturing environment may stall this fledging environment of innovation. The very tools that have enabled it may also stifle it if not used properly. Because the actual hardware and software is deployed by a third party cloud provider, management and oversight of those technology tools may be left out of the mix by department heads that are less concerned about IT's role, sharing data with other departments, and promoting a unified view of technology. In addition, shadow IT often overlooks the need to integrate with systems of records that traditional IT owns and manages. In many cases this level of integration is needed not only to eliminate redundancies, but also to ensure the best new products and the best end user experience.
The solution that contributes most to innovation is to continue to encourage departmental participation in deploying these IT solutions, while reigning it in with a "single pane" view of the entire environment, and management of the environment through an automated, end-to-end platform that eliminates the as-a-service silos of activity and replaces it with global visibility. And in some cases this solution and new approach will also need to find a way to free up resources so that they can focus on innovation and not reactive day to day tasks.
Today's innovation is tomorrow's also-ran, and manufacturers must embrace an environment of continuous innovation that is driven by data and technology. The unintended decentralization these new cloud tools bring can quickly propel the IT department into a reactive mode, so that the technologists that drive innovation are instead spending their time trying to gain control over an unintentional environment that demands constant attention. The IT department, instead of designing improved manufacturing processes and new products, spends time addressing unexpected problems that often arise from deployments that were made without the customary IT-driven due diligence and research.
Gaining control over Shadow IT is a first and important step in driving manufacturing excellence. This new "enlightened unification" of technology services still provides the benefits of cloud environments to department managers, while deploying a single-pane view and a high degree of automation — allowing the IT talent to shift to more strategic work. The result is a tighter connection between IT and the individual business units, which leads to improved innovation.
Raju Chekuri is CEO and founder of NetEnrich.