Commentary: I.T. On & Off The Couch

By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld  |  Posted 2004-10-18 Print this article Print

Information technology looking for a new, overarching reason for being -- or at least being needed.

Maybe one of these days, information technology will know what it wants to be when it grows up.

It is an industry that seems adrift, in search of a mission. Ever since the mantra that the Internet-changes-everything died (even if the Internet indeed is now changing everything), those who build, sell or consult about technology have been searching their souls. It's almost as if they're looking for a new, overarching reason for being -- or at least being needed.

The latest "transformation" that is being presented, analyzed and promoted as the cure-all for inefficiency and ineffectiveness in the daily lives of corporations is something called agility. Or flexibility. Or utility. Or any number of things that seem to imply that corporations must all become elephants that dance on a dime and change direction at the same time.

In the opening keynote session of the 2004 Gartner Symposium in Orlando, five of Gartner's leading analysts -- Diane Tunick Morello, Yvonne Genovese, Jeff Comport, Gene Phifer and Howard Dresner -- took their missionary work on behalf of agility quite literally.

Instead of sitting around a discussion table or even in chairs with backs on them, they sat ever so carefully erect on blue bubble seats that looked like toothing rings for squatting, rising up from the stage. They would pop off the pods in what seemed like spontaneous bursts of insight about "I.T. change cycles," "agility quotients," and "fluid" software. But, like most events these days, the concertina of comment without a doubt was carefully choreographed.

Information technology even seemed to be undergoing psychoanalysis, not just technical analysis. There was Morello earnestly intoning about how "grace is also a part of agility." Her contention is that if corporate technology leaders can figure out how to increase the "speed" and "nimbleness" of their systems -- how well they adapt to new needs -- then grace will surface, almost as a natural characteristic.

Her indicators that a company was on the correct path to agility? Awareness, flexibility and productivity. Not described: How you measure those indicators, exactly. Bring back the Rorschach test.

Comport was more concrete about why "agility" is needed so badly. He put one transportation company -- which remained nameless -- on the couch and found it was in an impossible bind. Its vendor of enterprise planning software released a new version of its product every 12 months. But each version took 9 to 15 months to implement. This "Lucy in the chocolate factory" problem is enough to drive any project leader crazy. You need agility, because there are times where you simply can't shovel fast enough to keep up. At least the way software is sold and installed today.

That means building, mixing and matching pieces of software, anywhere at any time. Of course, somewhere in the information technology business, someone has been trying to sell software in chunks, for the past four decades. Maybe it's Fortran libraries, maybe it's Corba objects. But Dresner contended that -- this time is for real. As any proselyte of the next coming will tell you.

This time had better be real, because unless there is a wholesale changeover of information infrastructure to new, standardized, single set of software and hardware, from alleged hairballs of applications and duplicative systems (See, "Kiss Your Apps Goodbye"), there may not be much about enterprise technology to talk about for the next couple years. Technology doesn't change organizations. People change organizations. And only if they choose to use "location-independent" pieces of code will the "orchestration" of these new "agile systems" be able to take place. Even if they decide for the launching of each piece of the resulting service to be determined by preset signals, rules or "events."

Which sounds pretty much the way the multiple systems of multiple vendors get "orchestrated" today.

"We now do this through a special form of technology. It's called a person,'' Genovese said. This is, in her technical term, "swivel-chair integration.''

So the trick is to make sure that people stay involved and that technology doesn't purely run itself, which is a pretty hard sell.

But don't worry too much. Technology or its implementers can't possibly stay on the couch too long. In the end, with any true transformation, the true believers know there is no turning back. As Phifer put it, when he popped up from his pod, there is no question agility aka flexibility aka utility computing is coming; even if no one is quite sure yet how to imbue it with "grace."

"This train is coming straight at us, guys, whether we like it or not,'' he said. Not to overanalyze this. It's always reassuring to have lots of change in store. And it's some kind of telltale sign to see the return of such single-minded fervor about this "next" transformation of corporate technology.

But let's not get too worked up about whether this train has left the station, just yet; or how fast it is going. Or we'll be back on the couch again, before too long. Besides, Gene, you don't have to worry, much. The "gals" said they get it, too.

Tom was editor-in-chief of Interactive Week, from 1995 to 2000, leading a team that created the Internet industry's first newspaper and won numerous awards for the publication. He also has been an award-winning technology journalist for the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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