As IT's industrial age ends, the humanist era begins

As IT's industrial age ends, the humanist era begins

Summary: There’s a real skills crisis in IT -- and it’s not a quantity issue. The new IT is not what the old IT was designed to do. For some, the new IT will create opportunities; for others, soul-searching and less relevance.


There’s a real skills crisis in IT -- and it's not a quantity issue. Just as the industrial age transformed manufacturing, IT has brought a level of efficiency and productivity to today's businesses. But, even the industrial age had to yield to new ages and new business needs, IT must do the same.

Listen to the technology market today. You’ll hear a whole new body of concepts being batted about.

Systems of Record are giving way to Systems of Engagement. User Interfaces are being updated to permit a better User Experience. Cloud solutions are displacing on-premises applications. Lighter, leaner IT groups are using utility computing (e.g., public) cloud solutions. Developers are building mobile and e-commerce apps. The list just goes on and on.

Before you dismiss these as isolated trends or marketing mantras, I’d urge you to really see what’s going on: IT is definitely in the midst of a transformation. IT was once a function that tamed the semiconductor and brought order to a bunch of ones and zeroes so that transactions could be efficiently and accurately tabulated. Now, IT must be something altogether different. IT must become a competency that does more than crunch numbers, process journal entries and print reports. IT just isn’t the study or use of databases anymore.

The modern business needs IT to be something much different. It wants an IT discipline to solve a very real and very different set of business problems. The new IT problems involve people, emotions, and other less-than-static, logical or perfect resources.

The new IT is not what the old IT was designed to do. For some, the new IT will create opportunities; for others, soul-searching and less relevance.  

The shift

Academics, policy makers, CIOs and IT workers need to look hard at the changing IT landscape to see some massive shifts coming in the skills needs of corporate IT. The future may be close, too, as application software vendors, analytics vendors and others are already making big shifts in the composition and education/work background of their teams.

These technical skills ... may be entering the back-end, long-tail decline of their market importance.

An IT department’s skillset today is a direct reflection of the systems that the team has historically supported. In many IT shops, it wouldn’t be unusual to find the majority of people with technical backgrounds. That’s because these persons have been tasked with operating and/or developing a number of transaction systems. 

But let’s look closer: These personnel have had to operate, patch and maintain on-premises applications and their associated hardware for the last 2-4 decades. The skills needed to do this often required data processing degrees, various software certifications, knowledge of operating systems, database tuning skills, etc.  Additional IT pros have solid programming skills that permit them to build transaction processing or book-of-record systems.  But, through and through, these people are technical and have technical backgrounds. You won’t find many liberal arts majors or any majors that have “-ology” in their name.

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Copyright 2014 - TechVentive, Inc.

While all of these technical skills have been instrumental in advancing major productivity and efficiency gains in businesses, they may be entering the back-end, long-tail decline of their market importance. The fact is, companies want a different kind of solution today and they want it on different environments. Businesses now need a different kind of IT pro to drive the next wave of computing for their firm.


Where you see the biggest change drivers already in play are in some of the select application software firms. These companies are creating mobile applications that are way more than a re-platforming or porting of a traditional book of record application to new form factor. The best new mobile apps are designed anew, not just for the smaller form factor, but for a different kind of user with different wants and limitations.  The modern mobile user wants something “designed” not “programmed.”  Likewise, they want something “designed” for their on-the-go lifestyle and mobile devices – they don’t want “ported” applications. These differences are monstrous.

First needed skill: Design apps to maximize the user experience

Infor, the New York City-based application software vendor, is continuing the reinvention of its application software. They hired a number on non-IT people with major design chops from Madison Avenue, fashion and other disciplines to create new applications that are visually appealing and compelling to use. Tell the truth, when was the last time you felt your ERP software’s input screens were visually appealing or compelling to use? Probably never!

Now IT must have the discerning eye of an artiste. IT must create "experiences" for their systems’ users.

In the mobile world, software designers need to develop smaller apps that are (and I know this sounds cliché) actually easy-to-use. Apps should be brainless to operate successfully. This is actually quite a difficult task as it involves more than usability measurements. The best designers look at color palettes and debate things like how well a color-blind person will do with these screens. The best designers fight with the internal IT people who want to put every function and feature on a screen when most users need only to complete 4-5 fields. This new kind of design requires an attention to details that haven’t been taught to several generations of IT pros.

Great design skills and an "eye" for design are often skills that don’t spring forth from nested if/then code statements. Great design is often like great art: you know it when you see it. "Seeing" great input screens or reports were never something I was taught when I was a programmer. If you think a data-laden, 93-column spreadsheet is a work of art, I’d be willing to bet most users would disagree. In fact, I don’t know how you "see" a 93-column anything on today’s mobile devices anyway.

IT is moving away from a time where we felt compelled to put in every feature, function, data element, etc. into every report, screen, etc.  No, now IT must have the discerning eye of an artiste. IT must create "experiences" for their systems’ users. Users want something more than rows and columns of numbers. They want a visceral, compelling, highly communicative user experience.

I suspect most IT shops have little of this skill in-house.

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Copyright 2014 - TechVentive, Inc.


Second needed skill: An intimate knowledge of how the human mind works, feels and thinks

Look at the vendors developing analytic and e-commerce applications. They’re spending fortunes on people with outstanding social science backgrounds. They’re hiring behavioral scientists, sociologists, psychologists and more. They need these people to help their technology-savvy IT folks develop apps that work with the humans who use them and not work against them.

Think about it: Could your IT shop figure out “Why do so many shoppers on our e-tail site abandon their shopping carts just before checkout?” Would they know what the probable root causes could be? Would they know how to collect this information?

Like in any great systems development effort, wouldn’t you want to bring in the real subject matter experts for this?

Chances are your IT shop could identify when the abandonment occurs and whether internet bandwidth speeds were a contributing factor. But to really understand why people exhibit the behavior they do requires specialized knowledge in how people think and how they feel. The root cause for this behavior could be due to the site asking for lots of personnel information pre-order. This could cause some users to instantly shy away from the site as your firm hasn’t done anything yet to be a trusted supplier to this customer. Trust, perception and other soft-side knowledge could be economically powerful to know if one wants to develop great applications and analytics.

I’m not arguing that IT people are devoid of these skills. We all have a fair measure of these or else we wouldn’t be functioning members of civilization. But, like in any great systems development effort, wouldn’t you want to bring in the real subject matter experts for this?

A couple of years ago, I did a consulting gig with a brilliant industrial psychologist. Each day, we sat in on the operating committee meetings of a major manufacturer. Throughout the day, we would quietly compare notes. We both had many, if not most, of the same observations but I couldn’t tell you exactly why I reached my conclusions. He could not only confirm my observations but he also knew the science behind them and he knew some mighty slick techniques to really move the client along.

The new IT must strike a balance between the behavioral sciences and technical/engineering disciplines. Every CIO must now ask of themselves: “What’s the correct right brain/ left brain skill set needed for our IT group?” Let me know if you have this already answered.

Next: An area that IT should absolutely own

Topics: CXO, Enterprise Software, NextGen CIO, The Year's Best Tech for Work and Play


Brian is currently CEO of TechVentive, a strategy consultancy serving technology providers and other firms. He is also a research analyst with Vital Analysis.

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  • One thing that I think you are saying, is the new IT can't be afraid...

    to actually talk to it's customers, end users, etc... Too often I see IT people afraid to talk with those they are trying to help. Yes, sometimes that conversation is difficult and often requires translating a user's words, description, etc.. into something actionable; however I think if that is done, moving forward toward a better solution is made easier.
    • What new IT?

      For years, it's about getting rid of IT, or reducing it's footprint due to "cost".

      Still, we as a humanist society place more value on people who hit a ball with a stick and call smart people "nerds", before we spell out all the reasons America keeps falling behind... it's all becoming a joke. The misuse of the name "humanist" is a crock. As is trying to pass "democratization" as anything other than populism...
      • No, IT will be always needed, but the focus will shift.

        The IT has moving with the trend. The hard skill such as coding will be replaced with applications, the focus will go to how to tell those applications to code usable business software
        • Applications ?

          Who would design and (afraid to ask) code those "applications" ?
          Suggested reading - timeless short story "Profession" by Isaac Asimov.
    • What a useless article of cr+p

      The new IT? The new IT is about things that won't come around. Do you know why? The infrastructure is not in the ground. The Fiber optic aint there for the masses. This is all Horse sh+t. The income inequality makes this all sh+t. The world is turning into a hell hole.

      Who is going to afford this? The laptops are using 1366x768 and the laptops are going backwards. We are moving to industrial military complex where the 1% are protected at all costs and the rest of us can be slaves or die. This is cr+p.
      johny bizaro
      • Fluff piece

        "The new IT? The new IT is about things that won't come around. Do you know why? The infrastructure is not in the ground. The Fiber optic aint there for the masses. This is all Horse sh+t. The income inequality makes this all sh+t. The world is turning into a hell hole."

        Yup! Even the basic infrastructure of the grid is in geezer territory and manufacturing has been so outsourced that it takes 6 months to replace a blown transformer. They don't make them here anymore. Then too we are in resource depletion--AKA Peak Oil.....look it up! We are sliding down the depletion side of the bell curve. Our economy ran for years on cheap energy and it is all gone. Peak oil activists predicted for many years this would result in a very serious economic downturn that will not here we are!

        As to "the cloud" considering what Snowdon revealed, only the Facebook crowd who doesn't give a whit about privacy would want to put their data there. The future of IT has been outsourced to INDIA. There highly paid IT folks make about $8K a year which puts anyone here below the poverty line--like who can live on that as a single person let alone support a family.

        So now everyone is supposed to "compete" against that--impossible!
        • cloudy days ahead

          ...I am not a big an of working in the cloud either. I work with (not as a career) 2D/3D CG. I hear a lot this talk of applications moving towards subscription based rather than system licence based. Some companies like Adobe and CLO (Creators of Marvelous Designer) have been moving in that direction. In fact Adobe's site almost makes one feel the only way to get their Creative Suite or Photoshop software is by subscription. One can still purchase a full system licence and install the software on their own workstation, but to find that page takes a bit of digging.

          This is the "darkside" of "humanist IT" and the cloud as in the virtual marketplace, it can be used to manipulate people into choosing the option the company thinks they need over what the customer wants. Like many, I would never leave my projects on someone else's servers let alone personal information, which is one reason why I do not deal with social media networks. Another reason is security, as these services can be (and have been) vectors for spreading viruses.

          As to the outsourcing, yeah, I see that every time when I go to a chat on a customer service page. Eight times out of ten the operator has a Hindu surname, and many I have dealt with do not have a full command of English which often makes it difficult to explain an issue from a user's/customer's point of view. Case in point, one time during a help chat with with my ISP provider's CS department concerning a billing issue, I was asked if I had TV service. I replied "no, [as] I don't own a television so I don't need it". When I went to my account page afterwards I found they had added television service to my plan (and didn't resolve the billing issue I contected them about in the first place). It took two more chat sessions with two different operators to get it removed so I wouldn't be charged for something I didn't need. It took two more sessions after that to finally resolve the billing matter.

          Being unemployed, I have a particular disdain for all this outsourcing of jobs overseas, whether it be IT, other technical occupations, or even customer service. I have read many times on discussion forums pertaining to the unemployment issue where someone said they lost their job when it was sent to China or India (and often, it was someone who worked in IT).
          Kyoto Kid
          • Right but for one thing

            Agree with what you say except that the main reason for software as a service is not to give the customer what they need but to maintain the cash cow flow year after year as for example Adobe is doing. Gut reaction is this will backfire on them, the cloud is unreliable both technically, security wise and business wise, sooner or later people will realise the risk. That's not to say some or even a lot of things are not better online, but never anything that is vital to a business or you personally!
          • What it's all aboit

            Yes. Exactly. Adobe knows that when their software is installed on a local computer it will likely be used for years before it is upgraded. SaaS versions of the same thing allow them to collect cash from their customers regularly and continuously. Naturally Adobe is pushing cloudy things as hard as it can, but are their customers as excited about the new cloud-based stuff as they are?
          • ...and the cow goes: "gimmie your money".

            ...that is a big part of it.

            I know a number of people on my CG forum who are still using older versions of PS/CS, (all the way back to CS2) in conjunction with other programmes they have (such as 3D CG applications) and primarily use it for post render work.

            Again I have Office 2K and am quite contented with it for it fits all my personal needs. I am not all that thrilled with what they did by changing UI format in ver 2006 and wouldn't want that forced on me (of course at an extra cost). I am also running the last update of Marvelous Designer 2 on my system and it works fine. True I don't ave the latest and greatest bells & whistles and spiffy new UI, but again for my purposes, it does what I need and I'm content with it.

            True, there is the one advantage in that ongoing updates/improvements can be readily applied rather than having to wait for an entirely new version to be released (and pay the upgrade price). However, in the long run I still feel the latter is the better as for one, a "public release" update has already gone through the beta development stage, and two, if by chance you run into financial difficulty (as I have) you are not just "cut off".

            On my CG forums, several people who use Photoshop of Creative suite have indicated they will either just stay with the version they have, or move to another application (like open source Gimp) should Adobe no longer offer local system intalls of their software.
            Kyoto Kid
          • typos (they need an edit post function)

            The line: [True I don't ave the latest and greatest bells & whistles...]

            should read: "True I don't have the latest and greatest bells & whistles"

            The line [...several people who use Photoshop of Creative suite...]

            should read: "several people who use Photoshop or Creative suite "
            Kyoto Kid
  • wasn't the lack of critical thinking skills

    One reason Americans haven't been able to compete in the global market? Saying we need less thinking and more psychological manipulation is truly condescending....
    • RE: wasn't the lack of critical thinking skills

      Actually America is competing just fine on the global market. The Apples and Googles are doing just fine, thank you very much. It's the outsourcing of jobs due to cheap labor is the primary reason Americans are less competitive. Globalization baby.
      • RE:RE: You don't need things if you can't afford them.

        The end of the middle class means that we can't afford the super duper pcs and internet. We have been told to tighten our belts and take more responsibility. The too big to fail is more important then the rest of us. The advanced computing is dead. We are stuck in silicon and the hard yards of material science are not being done. The nano tubes to no where. The fiber this and that. The shuttle failure is indicative of the failed material science.

        What is really is going on is the US is bringing down the cost of war by using of the shelf tech that has existed for decades. The toys will be the end of democracy.
        johny bizaro
        • Responsibility is code for "no assistance will be supplied."

          The Aynrandian term "responsibility" used in a sentence:

          Tiny Tim should have taken more responsibility for his health instead of depending on assistance from his father's boss Mr. Scrooge.
    • Agreed, like "emotional intelligence"

      a substitute for actual intelligence.

      Make it look better instead of function better.
  • So if we need more graphic designers

    For webpages UI and UX and if we need skilled talent, then the "supply and demand" paradigm dictates wages go up to attract it. So far, that had not happened and I suspect it won't.

    A nation of salespeople won't get far in the end. We need to value work and workers. Not play psychological mindgames. Or else we don't call the unemployed "lazy" or "leeches"...
    • Reply to "So if we need more graphic designers"

      Yup. In some ways, and I'm not bashing those in need, because I'm not - the underprivileged, disabled and the poor, and even traditionally disadvantaged, do need support and encouragement - often a lot of it too - but in some ways we need FAR LESS humanism and more linear thinking these days.

      Here in Ontario it was thought to be a good idea - and all PC - to go "green" and build windmills and solar panels.

      Well, it's all fine and good to go green .. but do it right.

      But they were so granola and humanist about it.

      They signed all these crippling and convoluted contracts with foreign companies, and "green people".

      Contracts designed to encourage and manipulate people - you know - humanist.

      Even if there's no wind, Ontario Hydro still pays the European and Asian foreign owners of windmills in Ontario a full super-price for the electricity that WASN'T generated. Yet excess energy generated by long standing Ontario owned conventional plants can only be sold to the States or Quebec at a reduced price, LESS than what an Ontario manufacturer would pay.

      The humanist mismanagement buggers the imagination.

      So even though Ontario is one of the most energy rich places on earth, the price of electric is sky high. Even canning plants have shut down. Tomatoes now get shipped elsewhere to get canned.

      Too much humanism, not enough good ol' linear.
      Singularity Point
      • Don't feel bad about your windmills!

        Here in Minnesota they put in a whole bunch of them...before they realized that the things used hydraulic fluid that was not designed to work in cold temperatures...line in a MN winter for example. Even if windmills turn out to be a good idea, rushed out, poorly conceived projects in the rush to be PC never work out.
        • Don Quixote's windmills

          The selling of nearly useless windmills is representative of what the humanist age is all about. The psychological aspect of the humanist paradigm, or "second needed skill", as the article puts it, is about understanding the psychological principles involved in manipulating people into buying nearly useless windmills. A skilled humanist should be able to make the buyer believe that the nearly useless windmills are very badly needed. This is a key skill for any humanist.

          For those used to more traditional terminology, a humanist is someone who uses psychological and sociological knowledge to influence the behavior of others. You know, con artist, used car salesman, etc.