I’ve written in the past about the curious evolutionary mutation that happened in the railway industry in the middle of the 20th Century with experiments to develop diesel-fueled steam locomotives. In hindsight the idea of using a different fuel to power an engine that operated using the same propulsion methods as coal-fired steam engines was obviously daft, but at the time it must have appeared to have been something of a good idea to some. After all, the railways had a stack of infrastructure dedicated to serving steam – particularly in terms of the provision of water to keep those kettles on wheels from getting thirsty, and not to mention a stack of technological expertise to keep them all running.
Back in 2008 Nicholas Carr, in his book The Big Switch, described the evolution of the electricity industry in the late 19th and early 20th century, and drew parallels with what he predicted as the rise of utility (cloud) computing. Manufacturing businesses in the times before the electric grid needed to locate themselves near to a source of power (wind, running water) or invest in capital infrastructure to develop their own (usually in the form of a static steam engine). Westinghouse and others bringing electricity to where it could be used changed that dynamic so that the location of businesses was no longer constrained in the ways they had been before.
These two threads have been bouncing around my head in the past few days as a result of number of different conversations. Ultimately, what it’s leading me to conclude is that the fundamental ways in which we currently manage technology within organizations, and the skills and capabilities that we have nurtured to do so, are no longer fit for purpose. But that mis-fit is so entrenched that we are trying to shape modern information and communication technology in an enterprise setting to utilise the skills that we have, not the skills that are needed. IT is a department churning out Steam Diesels.
Utility computing, cloud-delivered, whether in the form of computing power with Infrastructure or Platform as a Service, in terms of fully-fledged Software as a Service, ubiquitous network connectivity through mobile and self-managing consumer devices that are embedded into so many people’s lives are the reality today. Everything else is legacy.
And yet our technology departments are staffed with people who are there to deliver the technology. As it was put to me recently by the IT Operations chief of a big global organization, tech-savvy users are asking IT for help in how to use the services that are being provided, but the IT department is geared around geeks who can set stuff up but can’t actually use it. When everything is a utility, where’s the value in that?
Well, of course you can create your own value chain. I’m still amazed at how antediluvian Corporate IT systems appear to me having now been living within Cloud-only services for pretty much the past six years. How things to make it “proper IT” seem to actually appear as work creation schemes for the geeks.
Do we need a new set of skills and capabilities at all? Well, over time maybe not. I spoke this week to the HR head of a mid-sized UK retailer who has implemented her company’s entire performance management system. In Trello. And whose reaction to the widespread use of WhatsApp across the 150 branches’ staff has been to draw up a set of acceptable use policies (pretty much – “if you need to call in sick you need need to actually speak to your manager, but otherwise go for it”). IT isn’t involved, and all of the customer-facing ebusiness stuff sits in an ebusiness department.
But I do believe that there is a need for some expertise and capability to be built within organizations to help to get the best out of technology; but it’s a role of coaching and facilitation and advice (with maybe a bit of high-level conceptual data architecture thrown in), not delivery-focused geeks who measure their success in terms of the vanity metrics of “on time, on budget”. It’s a set of skills and capabilities that require curiosity about people and organizations, humility to not solutionize (or feel the pressure to solutionize) and empathy with the intended clients. It’s something very different from the world of IT that we have known for the last three decades.