Software eats our business culture, with a possible backlash

As information technology tears apart entire industries, we have to ask: are we crossing the chasm or falling into a chasm?

John Evans, writing in TechCrunch, makes an interesting observation that seems to reflect everything that is happening across all businesses these days: that it's now all about technology, period.

Rainbow hand photo by Joe McKendrick
Photo: Joe McKendrick

And that's a good thing, he says. The disruption of technology is breaking everything and everyone down into communities — "The Great Fragmentation," he calls it. At first blush you may see the communities of interest Evans talks about to be related to hobbies and political persuasions. These virtual segments and subgroups keep getting "quirkier and more idiosyncratic" — "as a direct result of technology, our entire society will, slowly but steadily, become weirder and more fragmented."

All good, all good, Evans writes. It means more choices and opportunities for everyone. 

There's a lot that business and IT leaders need to understand about this Great Fragmentation — or Great Unraveling if you will. Enterprises already feeling the effects include media, entertainment, and, of course, tech itself. And, quite significantly, the marketing departments of every business on the planet.

We're still only beginning to experience the huge disruption coming out of the digital realm. By that, I mean ventures — standalone or from within established companies — with little or no physical presence that run and interact purely on cloud, social, data and mobile technologies. One can now acquire many resources — from IT capacity to data to funding — from the cloud.

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From my own perspective, I've noticed an interesting shift over the years in my work — here at ZDNet, as well as in the research and thought-leadership papers I prepare for clients. That is, any discussion of technology needs to be based on its value to, and impact on, the business. At the same time, any discussion of business needs to focus on the disruptive effects technology is playing on business processes, outcomes, and ways of working.

To extend Evans' point, the digital disruption of business means many more opportunities for innovation from many more players. Business itself is becoming "weirder and more fragmented."

At the same time, industry visionary and former IBM leader Irving Wladawksky-Berger issued a word of caution in a Wall Street Journal post: People may be pushing back against the constant disruption tech is purportedly delivering.

Wladawsky-Berger cites Jill Lepore's recent New Yorker piece that questioned the "disruptive innovation" theories long advocated by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, which states that innovation advances when more nimble companies move into (or create) markets in which big industry leaders have no interest — and move up from there. We certainly have seen that over the years in the tech industry.

Wladawsky-Berger comments that Lepore's screed against Christensen's theory is just "part of a growing backlash against the relentless technology advances we’ve been living through for a quite a while now, and the havoc that’s come in its wake." Other examples, he adds, include the blockades of Silicon Valley company employee buses in the Bay Area and even TV shows that show tech culture in a negative light. 

Perhaps it's simply tech culture fatigue, he posits. "Many people are truly tired of all the talk of disruptive technologies with more to come in the future, even if they could not do without the internet, smartphones and similar innovations."

We in the media and analyst community are certainly guilty of relentless happy talk about tech. But disruption isn't always a series of joyous events — there also a great deal of pain that goes with it, especially in the form of job losses. Technology unravels business processes, then jobs, then companies, then entire industries, then entire professions. In its wake, new opportunities and ways of creating wealth are created — but these great new diamonds are often hidden deep beneath layers of mud and rock, requiring lots of investigation, experimentation and hard work to uncover.

That's our challenge — as tech leaders, tech professionals, journalists, analysts and solutions providers — to open up this new world so all may benefit.


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