It’s time to fully acknowledge what I first recognized back in 1980 when I read Alvin Toffler’s remarkable book, The Third Wave. In that book, Toffler pointed out that the differentiation of production and consumption is not the natural order of things. Separation of production from consumption was necessary to fuel the industrial age (which Toffler called the Second Wave). Before that, human beings (as individuals, families and small communities) produced what they needed to consume. With the industrial revolution, there was a “breach,” as Toffler referred to it, between production and consumption, that was “an unnatural act” and that would be healed over time by technology. Fast forward 30 years to the age of mass collaboration, mass customization, crowdsourcing, open source and Wikinomics, and Toffler’s words ring true to a degree unimaginable back then!
The Separation of IT Production and Consumption is an Unnatural Act!
Back in 1980, as I read The Third Wave (and coincidentally was personally transitioning from managing a software company to management consulting – helping IT organizations increase their effectiveness) it occurred to me that the need for an IT organization represented an unnatural separation of IT consumption from production. I came to realize that the whole notion of the IT organization, especially as it was typically configured back then, was essentially a temporary phenomenon. It’s also worth noting the IT context around 1980. Apple had introduced the Apple II in 1977 and IBM legitimized personal computing as an enterprise capability with its introduction of the IBM PC in 1981. Suddenly, Toffler’s words as they applied to enterprise IT were looking prophetic!
So, nearly 30 years later, having conducted literally dozens of global multi-company research projects into various facets of IT effectiveness, and worked with hundreds of IT organizations over much of the world, I am more convinced than ever that no IT organization is “good enough” for the institutions that they support to fully leverage the incredible emerging power of the Internet 2.0 (let alone 3.0!)
Why Web 2.0 Will Render Today’s IT Organization Obsolete
I see at least two major reasons that today’s IT organization will become obsolete over the next dozen years or so.
- Just as the PC democratized computing, if only in a relatively small way, Web 2.0 is revolutionalizing it in a massive and far reaching way. The PC moved computing from the mainframe “glasshouse” to the desktop, and ultimately laptop. Web 2.0 is moving computing (and nearly all the associated software needed to “compute”) from the desktop/laptop to the “cloud”. When the PC first appeared, even a modest tool such as Visicalc had “end users” doing things with computers that would have taken some pretty heavy duty Fortran programmers to achieve. Today, “end users” are doing things with mashups and widgets that would have taken some pretty heavy duty web programmers to achieve just a couple of years ago!
- IT professionals, and the organizations they staff are not just providers of IT products and services – they are also consumers. As such, they too will benefit from Web 2.0 (although as I’ve pointed out before, they may not be the first to the party!) The types of collaborative capabilities needed by the enterprise today also lend themselves to (and perhaps mandate?) collaborative approaches to IT management. Think of it this way, virtually everyone will be a “programmer”, system administrators will be everywhere, and technical specialists will be ubiquitous.
And the Walls Came Tumbling Down!
I realize that I am taking an extreme position – that the reality will be somewhat less severe for most of us. But I also see great potential to remedy some of the shortcomings of the typical IT organization:
- Business-IT alignment has been a perennial top challenge for years! Always showing up at or near the top of “biggest issues” in the annual computer magazine and research surveys, having an IT organization that translates business requirements into IT specifications and solutions is always, at best, a flawed approach. If I need a translator, something will get lost in the translation. Also, how can I tell you what I want, when I don’t know what I want till I see it! Give me the tools, let me explore and play, and I’ll figure out what I want, and in so doing, satisfy the need!
- There’s always an element of “the IT organization adds cost but not value” – this is just inherent of the role of intermediaries. The Internet has disintermediated many types of services – increasing pricing transparency and eliminating (or at least reducing) supply/demand asymmetries. The Internet has also led to new forms of intermediation (aggregators, brokers, agents) but these are not of the same type as those that were disintermidiated.
From Fishing for them to Teaching them to Fish
So, there will be new and different roles to play for the IT professional – but I emphasize DIFFERENT! Today’s IT organization has to carefully rethink the IT capabilities needed by the enterprise it serves, and how best to satisfy those capabilities – but not just from within the IT organization. We have to consider an entire ecosystem including the business user as producer, external entities as producers and consumers, and new internal roles of “brokers,” “guides,” and “information assistants”. I don’t know what all the roles are, what they will be called, where they will all work, what competencies they need, or how they will be sourced and trained. But I do believe they will not be configured in anything like today’s typical IT organization – dozens, or hundreds, or in some cases, thousands of IT professionals, “doing IT stuff for the business.” We have to shift our emphasis from fishing for the massess to “teaching them to fish” and providing them with the fishing rods and well stocked lakes for them to fish in.
How do you see this playing out? Back to the title of my blog, what will the IT organization look like circa 2017?