From steam punk to the future, and how to plan for it...

I've been doing a lot of reading, most recently 'The Big Switch' by Nicholas Carr. There are plenty of reviews of this fascinating work available - in essence this is actually two books.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

I've been doing a lot of reading, most recently 'The Big Switch' by Nicholas Carr. There are plenty of reviews of this fascinating work available - in essence this is actually two books. The first focuses on the history of American public utilities and makes a very plausible case for the web becoming a single 'worldwide computer' in the near future, delivered just like your electricity supply arrives at your plug socket.

The second section of the book paints a pretty dystopian view of the resulting web - a shallow 'pancake' of superficial content that is in danger of overrunning the depth civilization is based upon. This reminded me of the terrific 1909 EM Forster short story 'The Machine Stops'.

Nicholas' earlier 2004 book 'Does IT matter? -Information Technology and the corrosion of competitive advantage' "...lays out a new agenda for IT management, examining implications for business strategy and organization". IT infrastructure's corrosive effect on traditional advantages, the fate of hardware and software and ' The Reading, and Misreading, of Technological Change' are some of the intriguing and inflammatory topics covered here.

These books and Nick's blog both lend weight to the benefits of enterprise collaboration strategic and tactical flexibility while at the same time excoriating web 2.0 superficiality and lack of successful business models.

In 'The Big Switch' Carr draws fascinating parallels with early steam power. 'Mill work' describes the pulleys, chains and driveshafts rigged up in industrial revolution era mills to transfer power from steam engines to various machines and contraptions. Carr compares this steam punk imagery with current IT departments - steam was superseded by electricity, followed by standardization and alternate current power delivered from powerful dynamos.

The non standardized money pits of today's IT imperatives will inevitably be replaced by a single utility, Carr believes.

Another great tech voice, 'Bob Cringely' weighs in with a parallel question: "Reality Check: What does Gartner really DO?".

To be fair the always entertaining Cringely is critiquing "all the Gartner-like operations that give advice about technology to America's largest businesses" - Forrester Research, International Data Corp. (IDC), the Yankee Group et al.

"The five P's of IT are Pride, Prejudice, Politics, Price, and Performance, with the last two being by far the least important. Consultants like Gartner are very useful for minding the pride and politics, their real function being to provide $2 billion worth of IT management CYA per year."

The often difficult relationship between enterprise IT management and collaboration initiatives is thrown into sharp focus by these two viewpoints - the 'millwork' (IT plumbing) is validated by Cringely's consultants to an

"...entrenched, complex, and often closeted industry...things in IT don't really work the way many people think they do. I'm guessing the Vatican is a bit like that, too".

Nobody ever got fired for chosing IBM/Microsoft...

The way in which management needs to think about collaboration initiatives is very different to IT infrastructure projects. In the early days of personal computing neophytes were urged to 'chose the right software first, then pick the hardware to run it'.

A similar approach to designing collaboration initiatives is particularly relevant today, especially when planning the gradual migration from owned hardware to software as a service, the future Carr predicts. How useful IT consultants are in this space is debatable - arguably change management and knowledge management consulting should take presidence.

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