Go back to the pre-post-PC era -- the time before every human and their dog had a smartphone -- normal people didn't really like computers that much.
The only people who played with computers were technologists. Whenever a technologist would go and look at a PC owned by a non-technologist they would recoil in horror at the state of the thing. Inevitably a non-technologist's PC would be a grab bag of missing updates, accidentally installed IE add-ins, and various other crimes against good IT tradecraft.
In the post-PC era though things are different. Now non-technologists play with their computers (i.e. smartphones and tablets) all the time. It's not unusual to find people coming with complex workflows such as taking photos on their iPhone, backing them up to iCloud, and sharing them on Flickr.
What's happening here is that we're seeing a new form of amateur user emerging, one that is more informed and one that behaves much more like a professional technologist. These people are able to explore technology in the same way a professional can, and as a result they are able to innovate and develop solutions in the same way a professional can.
Sure, those people haven't been scarred by years of experience in the field that teaches them all the things you need to do in order to develop a career as a professional and not get fired too often, but they have something really valuable to add. They also have a huge advantage in that technology is not their job -- a point I'll come on to.
This has happened because with the invention of post-PC, computers have got easier. No longer are the computing devices that people have outside of the office a basket case of insanely difficult mess that -- unsurprisingly -- only professional technologists can actually understand. (Or be bothered with.)
Post-PC is much simpler and much less scary. Installing software is easier -- app installations never fail and never break. No one gets infected by viruses. Things just work. Post-PC devices come hand-in-hand with the cloud, which at this level provides frictionless ways of throwing data around.
Post-PC is pretty much like building with LEGO, whereas building stuff in the pre-post-PC era is like building stuff with some wood, a hand-cranked lathe, and your grandfather's chisels. Sure, the right person can build a beautiful artefact with the latter, but anyone can build something that works with the former.
IT has always operated in a top-down fashion. IT's job is to provide an infrastructure service to all of the other business units. Just like a business would cease to operate well if the facilities department managed to put all of the restrooms out of action, IT has the same power to screw up a business too. The lights go out for everyone if we don't do our job properly.
Which is why we do things slowly and carefully. "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast" is the best project management maxim ever created despite its military origins.
We're all familiar with this highly-managed, top-down, IT-led approach. It's something that we like for the simple reason it gives us control. It allows us to go slowly and smoothly, and then allows to execute and deliver with value.
But now the organisation is filling up with creative amateur technologist who, as I alluded to, have one killer advantage over the professional technologists. They're much closer to the users who actually do the job. They know what needs to happen much better than the people in IT. There are also more of them. The headcount of innovators even in a large IT department will be overwhelmed by the headcount of innovators in all the other departments.
There's value that can be delivered here by tapping into this grassroots force, and allowing people to build solutions from the bottom-up. Much like we allow people to "Bring Your Own Device", is there a way that we can allow people to "Bring Your Own Services" (BYOS).
Here's an example. A department wants to email out a survey to its customers. The corporate CMS supports surveys, but it requires an upgrade. The upgrade project will take six months and cost $50k. The head of department goes out and buys SurveyMonkey subscription for a few dollars with their credit card and get they survey out in the afternoon.
(Other online survey tools are available, by the way.)
Of course, as an IT professional you've seen the collection of problems with what the amateur technologist has done there, but bear with me.
We've seen this happen, and we've seen that it can cause problems. For example, an employee finding that they can't get the VPN working uses Dropbox without IT's sanction. Then, that arrangement manages to leak sensitive information, the business gets fined, and the employee gets fired.
But it was ever thus in IT. It's easy to shoot down any proposition with problems, especially if it's not "done properly". (And anyone at a senior stage in their IT career will rarely a BYOS this as "done properly".)
Where I think BYOS is valuable is in allowing the business to choose whether they want to go top-down (always more expensive, but always more controlled, less risky, more strategic, longer-lived) versus bottom-up (initially much cheaper, possibly more risky, not strategic, but there and working).
There's value in both, and it's crazy to ignore the potential of this approach. Our challenge is to learn how to do this, and keep the quality up, and keep the lights on, and not go bankrupt.
As a final thought on this, watch out for emerging cloud-based service businesses that straddle the middle ground. This trend will continue to bite, and there are opportunities for a certain type of business that looks like a consultancy-led, service-orientated one, but actually bypass IT to work directly with service users within a business to help them deliver from the bottom-up.
What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.