“Paradigm shift” is a much overused phrase, coined originally by the philosopher Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn argued that far from being a series of linear progressions, the body of scientific thought tended to move in abrupt leaps – paradigm shifts. At times of a new paradigm emerging, established wisdom tends to double-down on the existing models rather than accepting the new. Most of us cling more strongly to what we already know when confronted with something that seriously contradicts our existing view of the world.

I hadn’t heard of Kuhn before a conversation I had on Twitter over the weekend about changes in technology management with Andy Spence

It got me thinking. Whilst “paradigm shift” might be overstating it, there do seem to be a number of significant shifts in the world of technology that seem to all be happening at the same time that whilst inter-related, are separate:

From PC to mobile

Our relationship with devices (and computing) has changed. It started with the emergence of feature phones that were inter-connected and with which some of the geekier amongst us were playing around with from the late-1990s, and then hit full-tilt with the release of iOS and Android in 2007/2008.

For years the PC generation were telling us that mobiles couldn’t be used for “proper” computing. Today we are increasingly a mobile-first population with PCs being used for edge-case types of work that involve spreadsheets or excessive typing. PC sales remain in doldrums, whilst smartphones nestle in the pockets of the majority of the population.

In developing economies the growth of mobile as a platform is of even greater significance – it seems in many cases skipping the PC generation altogether.

IT departments, however, still often remain geared around providing desktop and laptop devices, and business software provided for those platforms often provides the inertia to keep mobile as a second-class platform.

From on-premises to Cloud

Salesforce is 17 years old this year. Amazon Web Service celebrates its 10th anniversary. And we were toying with “Application Service Providers” back in the late 1990s too. The idea of computing power being provided over the Internet as a utility service is not some flash-in-the-pan thing – it’s the reality. Anything that isn’t Cloud-based is increasingly seen as legacy.

And the software industry likes it – Cloud services kill piracy issues and give recurring revenue. But IT departments are still often structured around providing data centres and operating system updates and plumbing and a whole bunch of things that offer little or no value to their organization in of themselves.

From cost management to growth engine

Technology has moved out from the back office. It used to be a game of managing cost – one of my old Technology Directors only half-jokingly used to refer to himself at the Director of Gross Margin. The whole structure of IT management and governance geared itself around managing cost, sweating assets and restricting change as a result. These cost-focused models are in large part why IT got caught on the back foot when the “digital” thing emerged.

Redefining an entire division’s operating model is no simple task. And it’s why so many businesses have short-cut the problem by establishing E-business or Digital teams.

From enterprise to consumer

It used to be that the “enterprise” version of technology was the bee’s knees, and the consumer version the cut-down, “lite” edition. That started to change about ten years ago with the growth of home broadband, and then accelerated now by the growth of mobile. That so much innovation now happens in the consumer space first is a massive challenge if your technology management has been looking for its next moves from the likes of IBM or Oracle. They are looking in the wrong direction to spot the future.

Worse still, “enterprise” thinking restricts user activity and as a result stymies organizational ability to learn from the consumer world. Too often the growth of “shadow IT” (or, people finding the tools that they need to get their jobs done) is regarded as a problem to be stopped rather than a laboratory of interaction from which to learn. Want to know why email is so pervasive? It’s partly because all other options have been blocked at the firewall.

From transaction to interaction

Increasingly the technology that we value in our lives is that that enables us to interact with others – social networks, voice and video calling – rather that that allows us to perform transactions. Don’t get me wrong, transactions are hugely important. But the approaches that we use to define how to deliver technology that performs distinct, repeatable, transaction-based processes are very different to those that allow us to have conversations and build communities.

As I was sitting with someone recently in the British Library cafe recently, I realised that the distinction was that between the Dewey Decimal System for working out which books should be placed on which shelves, and the way in which a cafe is run to create an inviting environment in which people wish to socialise. Totally different skills and capabilities unified only by the fact that they both sit under the same roof.

I’m sure that there are a stack of other shifts. The key point is that all of this is going on, and whilst it might seem easy to just lump it under a banner of “digital transformation” or something similar, it’s really, really complicated.

The technologies are changing, and they require new technology skills to manage and exploit. But the business model is changing, the types of applications of technology are changing, and customer/client/user/employee/consumer expectations are changing too. We need to address issues of skills and capabilities, both within technology teams and without, of organizational structure over and above the simplistic “old and new” that is promoted by bimodal IT.

We need new processes and frameworks to manage technology – it’s not enough just to run “agile” technology projects if your procurement and financial governance structures are still stuck in the old world. We, above all, need the humility to know that nobody knows all the answers because we still need to shape how to operate in these new models, new paradigms. There should be a massive collaborative debate happening about all of this. I’m still not sure I am really hearing that happening yet…

 

4 thoughts on “A perfect storm

  1. Bimodal IT’s failure is a common one – attempting to impose binary thinking on an analog world. To its credit, it doesn’t try to shoehorn everything into THE ONE WAY (which only exists in the fever dreams of the ideologue). It still fails, however, due to the law of requisite variety. Our systems must fit their ecosystems if they are to succeed, not to mention that they must provide an adequate environment for the systems which comprise them.

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