Monday, June 4, 2012

The IT Department is Dying - Blame the iPhone


Death by Appliance
In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. Eric Hoffer
Albert Einstein: Inspirational Problem Solving Sayings
The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.
Because these locked-down devices prohibit the kind of tinkering by end users, these end users then fail to foster the next round of disruptive innovation. It is precisely this innovation and tinkering, which made PC’s and the Internet such a force of economic, political and artistic change, argues Zittrain.
Should we as I.T. Professionals then resist “Utility Computing” and appliance thinking? 
Should we do this for the sake of our future as I.T. people, our toys, and that of the very companies for which we are tinkering innovatively, expensively and in most cases inefficiently, each day? 
Are we contributing to the evolution or demise of our playpen by embracing these consequences of our tinkering? 
Maybe we have to stop and ask the question: “Have we created the enemy from within, or is this actually the foundation for a brighter future? 
I am not sure that I agree with the common death message, by appliance or otherwise, penned by these two authors. 
To help me make sense of reality, I sometimes look for patterns or parallels that I can use to compare with perceived prevailing perspectives.
In this blog, I will attempt to bring some understanding to the implications of what the above two gentlemen contributed as controversial academics, and speaking circuit corporate artists (and no doubt, tinkerers themselves). 
Know Your Subject

At the outset, I want to make the point that as our industry evolves, we should guard against the use of terms as de facto anthologies. 
“I.T. Department” is one such term (so is Internet), which is being used more often lately, out of context. As time passes by, the face of the “I.T. Department” has changed, yet we still rely on the nomenclature of yesteryear, with the assumption that we all share a common understanding.
“I.T. Departments” have evolved into “I.T. Services Organizations”. No longer is this the name we have for the programmers and computer operators huddled in the basement around a temperamental mainframe beast with green screens and flickering lights. No longer is the “I.T. Department” the people downtown looking after our PC’s, Networks, Servers and Applications. 
An “I.T. Department” in today’s context can distinctly be divided into different functions, each with specific services, and different structures. The term “I.T. Services Organization” may be more accurate in describing what it is the prevailing modern day “I.T. Department” is doing. 
It should therefore be no surprise that this organization may consist of a number of distinctly different departments, partners, and suppliers, each delivering through a collaborative value chain, to different business objectives. This is all done around a common theme of: “Information Management”. 
The I.T. Services Organization is more often playing that crucial role in crafting the future of the business by delivering on a company’s portfolio of projects. In some businesses the I.T. Organization is the future organization. It may also be the operators of a business process considered core (like Customer Relationship Management) or non-core (like payroll or Accounts Payable) to the value chain of the business’ product or services. 
In information intensive industries like financial services, we can hardly anymore distinguish where the “I.T. Department” starts and where it finishes. These businesses are information management businesses keeping records of your pesky overdraft. They are served by I.T. Service Organizations internal to the company, and external.
I therefore think it is na├»ve to think that the “I.T. Department” is dead or dying due to another supply shift in one of our value chains, like that induced by “Utility Computing”. 
Somehow, the way we knew the “I.T. Department”, has come and gone a long time ago. Our thinking has moved on already. If authors like Carr still write about it, chances are they are historians instead of the futurists they claim to be. 
If your business still has an “I.T. Department” and “I.T. Department thinking”, then beware. Utility computing is going to put you out of a job. Not because it is evil. It is going to do it, because your company is failing to keep up, and is at risk as a result, of not surviving themselves.
Authors like Carr, need to be sensitive to the fact that we have long since moved on from the “I.T. Department” mentality and thinking frame of reference in the majority of our businesses. Our job as I.T. Professionals and Managers of Information Services today is to play roles in specific functions delivering specific services in a landscape of I.T. Services that we orchestrate.
Some of these functions may be internal to the organization, and others (like Utility Computing) will transplant currently internal functions over to that of the vendor or supplier. 
However, that doesn’t distract from the fact that the “I.T. Services Organization” has to still contend with demands for cost and efficiency, every day while helping the Company re-invent itself. 
As I.T. Professional you will still be involved in finding the solution, designing the solution, implementing it, and operating it. The only difference will be from which organizational perspective you will add your bit to the value chain, and the scale to which you will deliver it.  
A mere change in accessibility of capacity, or potentiality does not end into and “I.T. Department” apocalypse. It may just be the seed to a new eco-system. 
In the mean time, someone forgot to tell Nicholas Carr about it.   
The Chemist, the Barista, and Starbucks

This brings me to the appliance conundrum of Zittrain. 
How can it be argued that an eco-system set on self preservation, is de facto orchestrating its own demise? 
It is merely altering the rules of participation. This it does in an attempt to protect its accomplices and expand its reach. 
Long, long ago, in the Wild Wild West, every man had to come up with his own brew for the next remedy induced relaxation. Some you could trust, and the stuff of others could kill you. 
The possibilities were endless. Much like the early days of the Internet or the PC. Everyone and anyone could be the next Henry Ford or Bill Gates. 
Nevertheless, every man’ was for himself. Making it and taking it was a risky business. It was mostly worth the effort - if you lived to tell the tale. The possibilities to be innovative were endless. The outcome for the most part unpredictable.
Over time, we became wise, and we realized that there were benefits in rather trusting professionals. Instead of drinking our own experiments, we would go to the Barista’s for our brew. A chemist for our medicine. At least then, you can with relative certainly know that what you are drinking is not unintentionally destined to kill you.
This change in circumstance reduced experimenting to a select few with the knowledge, and willingness to take the risk. They became known as the Professionals. For the rest it meant healthier (and safer) lives. 
Did it reduce innovation? Possibly. Did it distract from possibility? Not necessarily. What it did do, was make it more accessible with relatively low risk to the masses. 
Controlling the outcome benefitted the whole, as long as we recognized that it was not the definitive reality. We had to make provisions for further evolution, new knowledge and the possibility of an alternative, and much more acceptable reality.
With yet more time, Starbucks arrived on the scene. Now anyone can drink “designer” coffee anywhere. No longer do we give any thought to how it is done. Many don’t even know the meaning anymore of the word: “Barista”. 
The result - our next caffeine fix - is all that matters. At this point we may have been distracted to the extend that we’ve lost all perspective of the heritage and the value to be found in concocting one’s own brew. Innovation may appear to be well and truly snuffed out. We’ve become brainwashed in thinking that the only coffee worth drinking is Starbucks. Starbucks is coffee, and everyone is drinking it.
At this point, I will agree, we may appear to have a problem. 
Yet, somehow, because we are human, there will always be those looking for the next thing. Maybe coffee is not what we needed after all. Who knows, one day even Starbucks may find itself to be ingredients in yet another cycle of innovation for innovative drinkers, set on finding the next solution for recreational relaxation. Maybe Starbucks patches will do it for them.
Jonathan Zittrain, today’s Internet appliances such as the iPhone and Xbox does not hamper innovation, it makes it more accessible. 
The Internet’s ability to reach its full potential is not determined by these devices, or masses of tinkerers. Sometimes it only takes the work of a few to create a completely new eco-system. 
The Internet has evolved already beyond its original scope, precisely because the masses no longer need to code HTML or know how to encode their YouTube video. The appliances of yesterday becomes the ingredients for today’s innovation. 
Because these locked-down devices prohibit the kind of tinkering by end users, it is precisely doing what is necessary to empower the Internet. It is instilling confidence and trust into an even larger eco-system on the back of raw materials like appliances such as the iPhone and the Xbox
In the end, it all comes down to which ecosystem you choose to see. Is it the pre-iphone one or the post-iphone one. Both holds infinite scope for innovation and tinkering.
Conclusion
The last thought I would like to leave with this Blog entry is this: Be aware of your perspective. Know that it is merely that - another perspective.
With death something can end, it can also begin. For me, death is beginning. For this, I salute the iPhone and Utility Computing. It marks the road for me to a new and exciting future.
Your comments are always welcome.
Hendrik van Wyk

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