What is an IT organization (information technology organization)?
An IT organization (information technology organization) is the department within a company that's charged with establishing, monitoring and maintaining information technology systems and services.
In the broadest terms, an IT organization is a multifaceted business entity that facilitates almost all aspects of enterprise operations. Although the specific duties and goals of an IT organization vary depending on the size and goals of the enterprise, a typical IT organization involves the following:
- IT infrastructure. This includes the servers, storage, networks and other physical components and logical constructs, such as virtual machines or software-defined networks, needed to host applications, store data and connect the infrastructure to users. An IT infrastructure can be implemented locally in a traditional data center, remotely within a colocation facility or public cloud provider, or a mix of these options. The purpose of an IT infrastructure is to run business applications.
- Applications. This includes a broad range of software, such as business applications, including databases, human resources (HR) and finance software, design and collaboration software, and business email; all platforms and software designed for users, such as revenue-generating business websites, application programming interfaces (APIs) and applications; the software development toolchain, such as integrated development environments, version control and testing tools; and all tools and platforms the IT organization uses to monitor and maintain the IT infrastructure. All applications depend on the IT infrastructure.
- IT staff. This includes IT administrators, engineers, managers and executives, such as the chief information officer (CIO) or chief technology officer (CTO), who are tasked with planning, implementing, maintaining and updating the IT infrastructure and applications to further the needs of the business and its users. The growth of DevOps and other Agile software development and deployment paradigms means that developers are increasingly part of the IT organization -- not just as application creators, but also as operations experts who deploy and monitor applications created for the business.
- Users. These include employees who depend on enterprise applications for daily work, as well as business partners, customers and client users who provide revenue for the enterprise. Without users, there would be no purpose or benefit to an IT organization.
What does an IT organization do?
Today's IT organizations can be complex and far-reaching entities tasked with an array of goals and responsibilities that are essential to the successful operation of a modern enterprise. Many of those varied responsibilities can be categorized into the following six principal activities:
- Build and manage the IT infrastructure. The IT organization is responsible for planning, designing, building, monitoring and maintaining the infrastructure, including the servers, endpoints, storage and networks that support the organization's applications and IT services. Modern infrastructure includes traditional local data centers, as well as hybrid and public cloud infrastructures. Even though an IT organization might not be involved in the design and construction of cloud infrastructures, it's responsible for designing and implementing how those cloud or third-party resources and services are assembled for business use.
- Deploy and manage applications. An IT organization is responsible for deploying, monitoring and managing a broad range of enterprise applications, including both internal applications used by employees, such as HR, productivity and collaboration applications, as well as external applications used by clients or customers, such as web portals, APIs and revenue-producing platforms. This responsibility is increasingly shared with DevOps and other Agile software development teams.
- Store, manage and protect data. Data is one of the most valuable assets that a business can possess, and an IT organization is responsible for ensuring that data is stored reliably within the infrastructure, accessed safely and protected from loss due to system failure, security breaches or disaster. This often includes data classification to understand what data is present, where it's located, its importance to the business and the retention requirements that apply to each type of data. IT organizations often collaborate with data owners and legal teams to build security and retention guidelines that ensure business data compliance.
- Manage and maintain security. Security is a broad term, but the goal has evolved into multipronged initiatives for IT organizations. Security efforts are required for user accounts, employing credentials to ensure that only authorized users can access the IT infrastructure, applications and data. Security implements monitoring and countermeasures to identify and mitigate intrusions or blunt data theft. Security oversees application and data integrity to find and eliminate viruses and other malware. This involves using complex security tools and carefully crafted security practices.
- Provide training and support. IT organizations are typically responsible for providing new and ongoing training to employees on such topics as account access, acceptable use policies, data access and protection, or compliance. In addition, the IT organization is the go-to team for technical questions, support and application help.
- Strategic growth and transformation. Businesses rely on IT resources and services to function. As technology evolves and new technologies emerge, the IT organization is often responsible for reviewing and evaluating hardware and software to identify new uses and competitive advantages for the enterprise and its business goals. It's the IT organization that makes recommendations for upgrades and new platforms that can enhance the organization's ability to do more business faster, yielding better business outcomes at lower costs.
How is an IT organization structured?
An IT organization is typically designed as a hierarchical relationship of roles and responsibilities intended to serve the information technology needs of the business and its user base. In general terms, an IT organizational structure comprises the following three general levels:
- Executive level. The top of the IT organization includes a CIO, CTO or other technology leader who reports to a chief executive, such as the chief executive officer or president. The executive is primarily responsible for translating the needs of the business into strategic goals for IT teams.
- Manager level. The management level can include leaders for each IT department, including the infrastructure team, operations team and applications team. Other relevant teams could include a customer relationship management team, analytics team, services team, and project and development teams. The exact number of teams can vary, depending on the size and complexity of the organization. IT managers report to the executive level.
- Execution level. These are the many varied IT professionals tasked with handling the day-to-day tasks involved in their specific roles. For example, an operations team might include system engineers and administrators, while an infrastructure team might involve technicians, network engineers and administrators. Similarly, a project team might have a project leader who directs numerous staff.
Every business is different, and the type and number of roles distributed across an IT organization can vary. For example, a business that requires many applications might have a team dedicated to deploying and maintaining those important applications, while another business with strong application development needs might build a large team of in-house developers, as well as quality assurance, testing, help desk and support staff. Still other businesses with ambitions in artificial intelligence might employ data scientists and analysts to complement the development teams. An enterprise with large and evolving hardware infrastructures might employ IT architects and cloud specialists to help integrate public and private clouds into hybrid offerings.
There are other variations to IT organizational structures, such as centralized versus distributed. The examples above relate to a more traditional centralized IT structure. A distributed organizational structure might place certain IT staff and management control within other business units. For example, the HR and finance departments might each have dedicated developers and IT staff available to address the specific needs of each department.
What are the benefits of organizational structure in IT?
An organizational structure that includes IT is critical to the successful operation of the enterprise. A well-conceived and properly implemented IT organization can translate the strategic goals of the enterprise into desirable and cost-effective results that can be communicated back up the chain of command to management.
An organization brings the following benefits:
- Improved communication and coordination.
- Clear roles and responsibilities.
- Better paths to decision-making and problem-solving.
- Improved response times and business efficiency.
Although these concepts apply to any business organization, the benefits can be particularly acute for an IT organization. Every modern business is built on IT. Consider just how much money is invested in IT in hardware, applications, software development and data storage for the business to function.
Now, imagine there's an IT outage -- a good IT organization has the tools, workflows and staff in place to address and mitigate that outage quickly. Without a well-planned IT organization, it might not be clear just who is responsible for handling the issue or even how that issue occurred, and the business can founder until someone takes the reins and handles the issue. Such delays can be costly for the business, its reputation and even its regulatory compliance posture.
Considerations for implementing an IT organizational structure
There's no single right way to design and implement an IT organization. There are as many variations of an IT organization as there are businesses. However, building an efficient and successful IT organization should include the following broad considerations:
- Set realistic goals. Understand what IT needs to do. An IT organization expected to deal with everything probably won't do everything particularly well. For example, what tasks must be handled, or what problems -- whether technical or business -- must the IT organization solve? Money, talent and time are always finite resources, so be pragmatic and objective about what the IT organization can and can't do. Many tasks can be handled in-house, but a business might also depend on third-party contractors for some goals until those efforts can be brought in-house. For example, a business might have the IT resources to handle technical support for internal employees but rely on a third-party provider to handle help desk support for outside clients or customers.
- Seek business alignment. Understand the needs and objectives of the business, and design an IT organization that best aligns with business goals. For example, a business that emphasizes the role of cloud computing to offload traditional data center costs might build an IT organization focused on creating a hybrid cloud and in-house cloud center of excellence to help drive the use of cloud computing across the business. Conversely, a business with strong regulatory compliance pressures, such as a healthcare business, might focus its IT organization on initiatives such as data security and data lifecycle management, including data retention and deletion. An IT organization must facilitate the efforts of the business -- not vice versa.
- Understand needs and resources. There are four main elements to any IT organization: money, people, time and tools. A successful IT organization must balance those four elements against the goals of the IT organization, which ideally align with the needs of the business. For example, a business that needs cybersecurity can't achieve that -- at least in-house -- without having the budget for skilled people and an investment in suitable tools that can meet security objectives. This is equally true for other IT goals, such as technical or help desk support, IT architectural design and engineering, and everyday systems administration. A business might need to adjust budgets and goals to meet the most important IT objectives.
- Stay flexible. The only constant is change. Business challenges and goals evolve over time, and IT organizations must also have the flexibility to grow and shift to meet changing technical, legal, security and competitive landscapes. This means periodically changing IT employee roles or adding staff, enabling ongoing IT staff training and education, examining IT performance metrics and key performance indicators, experimenting with new technologies and tools through proof-of-concept projects, looking for new opportunities to use IT to transform the business, and making sensible changes to optimize the prevailing IT organizational structure over time.
One of the many roles in an IT organization involves bringing together C-level executives to manage the scope of the organization's risks more effectively and to create an overall strategy for building resilience.