Is your business future proof?

Technology changes at a frightening rate. If you pay the IT bill, depressing might be a better word.

Take the shelf life of a new personal computer. It is now down to just nine months.

More worrying, some PC makers estimate you’ll use a desktop machine for just 18 months before needing, not merely desiring, a replacement.

File servers and other larger computers last longer. Manufacturers expect you to get two to three years use from such a machine.

While software and operating systems change less often, the changes need extra spending elsewhere as other software, hardware and support will all need updating.

Network technology may not change at the same rate, but your communications needs will.

Of course, you don’t have to allow the people who sell technology to dictate your replacement schedule.

If you aren’t continually re-evaluating, upgrading and improving systems you could quickly fall behind competitors. It isn’t going to matter if you wait an extra year before following the herd to a new technical nirvana, but you will need to move on at some point.

In information technology, standing still is not an option—try buying a mainstream application for Windows XT to see what I mean. Vista replaced XT only a couple of years ago, yet Microsoft treats XT like ancient history. So do other PC application suppliers.

While you don’t want to be a hostage to fortune, your organisation’s IT plan must include an orderly renewal schedule. A good plan takes expected technical advances into account as well as the hardware, software and support costs of regular upgrades and replacements.

This need not be as expensive or as difficult as you might fear. There are cheaper ways of squeezing more performance from an existing technology investment than throwing everything out and starting again.

This is true if you can devise a forward-looking IT strategy putting systems and policies in place to take your organisation through the next few years without expensive discontinuities. This kind of planning is the core idea behind future proofing.

Or, more accurately, it is the core idea behind the usual meaning of future proofing.

Like many IT terms, the word is hijacked and misused. Some advertisers use the word to imply a product or technology won’t be outdated for a long time. That’s a part of future proofing, but it isn’t the whole story. Nor is it the most important aspect.

At the core of future proofing is the idea today’s decisions affect future decisions.

Most importantly, you shouldn’t commit to technical dead-ends. Buying the best tools for today’s needs is not enough. You need to look over the horizon as well. There are two types of changes to consider, those inside your organisation and those outside.

A good organisational IT plan should closely align with the business plan. It needs to look forward to tomorrow’s needs. A growing organisation should put IT systems in place that can expand to meet future capacity and application requirements. An organisation expecting to get smaller might need to add IT capacity to compensate for workers or it might just need less IT.

Externally, you need to read the IT industry. Will company X continue to market, develop and support software Y?

Is the feature being heavily promoted by company A likely to become an industry standard as promised or will it go the way of the Betamax video and EISA bus?

This can mean using an inferior technology because it is a standard. Standards tend to hang around longer than non- standards and new standards tend build on old ones. Of course there is the question of `which standard?’ but, on the whole, standards make a good starting point.

Similarly, there is safety in numbers. Products that sell well are more likely to survive than those that don’t. They are more likely to be developed, improved and updated. The companies making the products are more likely to be around to give support. So picking industry winners can help.

On the down side, if you play safe and opt for obvious standards and industry winners, you’ll have systems that look a lot like everyone else’s. This might be comforting, but you won’t gain a strategic advantage over your rivals this way. Your system might be future proof, but your organisation might not.

In some respects building a future proof system is like the way exporters buy currency options. Both processes reduce risk. You take a small hit now to cut the chance of a big hit later. In some cases those yet to happen big hits are fatal.

You’ll need to do plenty of homework. Reading the technology press, keeping track of marketing material, paying for expensive analysts’ reports and attending seminars is part of this process.

As an IT journalist with some 30 years experience, I want to warn you companies don’t always tell the truth and other times they get it wrong.

Sorting good information from bad is hard enough for those who do it for a living. For people with other responsibilities it is almost impossible. Listen to what people say by all means, but don’t bet the business on a supplier’s promise.

At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking that future proofing sounds good, but belongs in the too hard basket.

Thankfully, there is a way around the problem. To find it, consider how company’s reduce currency risk. Few organisation’s handle their own currency risk management. Most contract specialists who agree to deliver a predetermined set of results.

There is no direct equivalent to currency hedging in the IT world. But organisations can move to IT arrangements where they buy predetermined deliverables and not specific tools and technologies.

For example, you might hire or lease equipment, not buy it outright. More specifically, an organisation could future proof payroll processing by hiring a service provider who delivers an agreed number of correctly processed pay transactions within a fixed time at an agreed cost. This approach explains the success of software-as-a-service vendors.

In an arrangement of this nature, the customer doesn’t need to know or care about the technology used or how the payroll is processed, merely that the job is done.

Contract clauses can account for any efficiencies gained by technical advances during of the contract, or they could be put aside until contract renewal. Competitive tendering means service providers can bid on a combination of service quality and cost.

Finally, future proofing is about managing risk, not necessarily eliminating it. You need to develop a realistic awareness of your organisation’s IT risks and the impact these risks have on your organisation’s main business. Learn where you can take a punt and where you can’t. If you start to think about your IT in terms of risk, you’re part way to building a future proof organisation.