Field NotesPreparing for IT 2.0

Romi Mahajan

In The Life of Reason, the great philosopher and essayist George Santayana wrote that "[t]hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," indicating the incredible importance of learning deeply from past wrongs in order to actively construct a better future. The application of this thought is clear in the worlds of politics, culture, history, and even science. In fact, the idea of "learning from mistakes" is so common as to be cliché. But how many of us in Information Technology truly think about the past—and learn from it? And if we don't, are we at all prepared for the IT world of the future? And indeed what does this future world look like?

Well, let's guess, using the power of memory. Over the last 30 years, the changes have been profound. IT has evolved from large mainframes to browser-based computing, from device concentration to device proliferation, from immaturity and rarity to super-specialization and commonness, from relative simplicity to extraordinary complexity. Extrapolating, we can therefore expect IT to get more complex, more specialized, and more democratized. IT will also need to support increasing numbers of and kinds of devices as well as increasing numbers of and kinds of platforms. All of this will require more detailed planning than ever before.

Are these notions commonly internalized? Not even close.

Take, for instance, the conversations in a panel I recently lead on the "Consumerization of IT," at a technology conference in November 2007. The premise of the panel was simple: that the lines between business and consumer technologies have blurred, that consumer applications and devices are leading the development of IT, and that IT departments need to gear up for the family of phenomena represented by the Facebooks, iTunes, and BlackBerrys of the world. Simple idea? Obvious? Old Hat?

Well, judging by the reaction of folks in the room, not at all. Of about 100, only 4 mentioned they were "on Facebook." "It's for young people," said one participant. "Well, aren't the employees that your IT department supports young and on Facebook?" asked one of our panelists. Confusion and denial ensued. No more than a handful of the IT managers in the room felt it necessary to build out their organizations by hiring people who understand how to build and support applications and devices on the new platforms that occupy the bulk of people's technology time.

When asked how to build effective IT policies governing the use of and security of cross-over technologies like cellular phones and laptops that are dual home- and business-use devices, the crowd was vociferous but had little by way of substantial opinion. A common feeling was encapsulated by one person who said, in the Draconian fashion typical of IT 1.0, "If someone from my office plugged an MP3 player into a work laptop or accidentally left a work-issued cell phone at a bar, I'd fire him."

Uh huh. Go for it.

Another area in which one can detect this poverty of thought is in the dryness of conferences meant for IT leaders. If I see another conference track devoted to the vague notions of "IT business alignment" or "Common score-carding," I think I'll stop traveling. Why aren't more people asking what IT 2.0 looks like and what we need to do to get ahead of the curve? Why aren't we asking what skills and attitudes the new generation of IT professionals need in order to create a dynamic future? Why aren't we bemoaning the fact that not a single company views its IT department in the same light as innovative companies think of their R&D departments? Instead of debating centralization versus decentralization, why not grapple with the real issues of IT totalitarianism versus IT democratization?

We have to love ourselves a little more by showing we care about our future. We've all heard about Web 2.0. It's time to start thinking of IT 2.0 if we are going to realize anything even closely resembling the potential of technology.

Romi Mahajan is Director of the Technical Audience and Platform Marketing team at Microsoft. Romi has been published extensively in many fields including politics, the environment, technology, and sociology.

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