The Changing Role of the Network Professional

Digitalization is changing the way IT operates. The network is now of critical importance to the business, but how does this affect the role of the network professional? This blog post looks at the reasons for these changes, how they occur, and how they benefit the business.

Traditionally, IT and the network was isolated in its own department, separated from the rest of the business. Its main role was to provide service for the employees within the business, and worked on large, singular projects with definitive delivery dates. There was a clear line between IT and business operations. The network did not contribute to achieving business goals beyond offering infrastructure support.

As explored in this post, global digitalization has changed the relationship between IT and the wider business. Businesses must make faster, more informed decisions that improve the network and business’ performance. Most businesses have not yet fully engaged with the digital transformation, but companies with more advanced digitalization strategies outperform their competitors who are less digitally mature.

In this post, I explored what the digital transformation means for business and network leadership. Here, I will discuss how it impacts the role of the network professional.

The need for agility

Digitalization unlocks vast amounts of data. This data can create greater value for the end user and drive greater business return. For example, a business might collect data about a user’s preferences and previous use of its applications. Using this information, the business can then personalize and enhance the user’s experience in future.

Companies with higher profitability than competitors are more likely to have developed IoT strategies and capabilities

Accenture, ‘Growing the Digital Business: Spotlight on the Internet of Things’ (2015)

With greater availability, data is now everyone’s responsibility. Data collection and interpretation are no longer limited to specific business functions. IT departments used to collect metrics about internal network performance, but now data is collected across the business. End users leave digital footprints as they use the business’ services, for example logins, page views, link clicks and forms. The digital footprints are tracked and then analysed. As a result, IT’s operations have expanded from only internal to expansive, external data collection. IT has moved from simply being another department to becoming an integral business capability.

Automation and analytics technology can help make decision making easier for network professionals. Whilst leaders will still decide overall strategy, the network management process will become leaner and more efficient. Network professionals can see every connection, which is essential for finding valuable business information. This information can then be analysed for insights.

Proactive strategies can also accelerate the process of network change itself. Presently, network changes take an average of four months to complete.[1] This is far too long considering the rate of market change. As a reference, in 1958, top corporations remained in the S&P500 Index for an average of 61 years, but by 2012 this had fallen to 18 years.[2] What customers want and need is not static – and this dynamism shapes the market around them. Businesses cannot afford to keep time-consuming, top-down leadership structures. These structures restrict network professionals and admins to a reactive role.

Adapting to digital trends, such as the Internet of Things and BYOD, is vital to business profitability. Businesses that do not change processes or lack necessary technology will not be agile enough to deal with the real-time information provided by IoT devices, for example. Given there will be over 20 billion connected devices globally by 2020,[3] this must be addressed. Network professionals must have the freedom and technology to deal with this data as they encounter it. Only then can they provide rapid insight for immediate business action. Without flexibility in the network layer, businesses will be unable to adapt quickly enough to the changing data patterns that define the digital economy.

Business alignment

The network is now central to business performance. Therefore, network operations must retain vision of the overall digitalization strategy at all times. They will consider where value for end users is created, and which practices could maximize this value. They will also consider the network’s return on investment and think about the processes and technologies that will improve their own productivity. Greater responsibility and freedom will enable network professionals to contribute when leaders are deciding strategy.

End users no longer adapt to the business’ applications and services. Instead, the business must adapt to what the user wants. Every decision must consider the impact on service provision and the creation of value for the user. These are central to the cultural change brought by digitalization. Appropriate skillsets will help network performance align with the business’ long-term vision.

Digital transformation is an endless process. It cannot be achieved just by announcing the merge of network and business processes. IT now is the business, so companies must embed their innovations and new initiatives into disruptive business models. Network professionals can then focus on outcomes and realize value from their network.

85% of enterprise decision makers feel they have two years to make significant inroads on their digital transformations, or they will suffer financially and fall behind their competitors

Progress, ‘Are Businesses Really Digitally Transforming or Living in Digital Denial’ (2016)

Operational efficiency

Merging network services and business applications is not easy. Many networks were designed and built long before digitalization, the IoT, and BYOD. Their technologies and information silos were not meant for networking. Now, however, operational efficiency is impossible without collaboration and initiative. Whilst network deployment becomes more complex, its execution has remained largely unchanged. To address this, businesses can adopt a workflow approach that empowers network professionals to take initiative and break down silos.

Digital workflows help workers improve quality and effectiveness. These technologies automate network processes, freeing network professionals from labor-intensive tasks. Workflows improve network efficiency by streamlining processes and reducing operational costs. In this way, business agility increases and workers can focus more on value creation. A network management system (NMS) is an example of a workflow technology in the network industry. NMSs provide live process data, which helps network professionals act more quickly. These platforms unite tools and functions under a single login, increasing visibility and efficiency. Customer-facing knowledge bases, internal wikis, and ticketing software are also often deployed together in a single workflow.

DevOps teams spend 22% less time on unplanned work than other teams

Puppet, DORA, ‘2017 State of DevOps Report’ (2017)

It is crucial to understand the workflow and how the network relates to business activity. Digital workflows provide the context and organization of that data, which allows network professionals to measure the metrics that affect end users. These metrics include the costs of network downtime, or slow applications, for example.

As networks become more software-driven, DevOps processes are also growing in popularity. DevOps merges development and the network infrastructure, bringing together operations and development engineers. They work together from design, through development, to production. Large parts of current networks were not designed for networking, but DevOps ensures future network deployment is suited to digitalization and automation. The network then becomes part of the development process, not just support for it.

Network professionals and programmers will need to experiment together in safe-to-fail environments. Here, rapid testing and learning reveal which methods work and which do not. Corrections can then be made quickly. This encourages faster results and ensures continuous innovation. DevOps can only succeed if workers have the freedom to operate in this manner.

Combined internal and external pressures compel the role of network professionals to change. The significance of data to a business’ success is the main driver behind this shift. As a result, network professionals are now being moved closer to the business’ frontline. Their working methods and responsibilities must be updated to reflect this move, otherwise they will be unable to deliver the necessary business results.

[1] Forbes, 6 Predictions About The Future Of Digital Transformation (2015)

[2] Innosight, Corporate Longevity: Turbulence Ahead for Large Organizations (2016)

[3] Gartner, Forecast: Internet of Things – Endpoints and Associated Services, Worldwide (2016)

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