I just spent two days at the Gartner CIO Leadership Forum in Dubai, where my colleague Mark McDonald opened the event with a great keynote. The theme of the event was “Amplify the Enteprise”, which captures the increasing role that IT can play to innovate and drive the business.
During his keynote Mark used an interesting musical analogy. He compared the enterprise to an orchestra, where individual violins, cellos, trumpets etc play individually to create a harmonic whole: however, when one single instrument – the tuba – plays, often one single note, it overwhelms the whole orchestra. He said that often technology is like that tuba, but it should rather help amplify the whole orchestra rather than overwhelm it (Mark explains his musical analogy in this post). And it should do so without creating distortion or negative feedback (that loud noise you can hear when somebody carries a microphone in front of a loudspeaker).
I like the analogy, but thinking about it I wondered whether there is a slightly different one that matches the long term role of technology. The analogy is the synthesizer, an electronic instrument that was introduced in the late sixties and characterized much of the progressive rock music of the 70s in its analog version.
Through the 80s to today, the synthesizer embraced digital technology and became a powerful music workstation. Besides synthesized and sampled voices for all sorts of instruments, today’s programmable synthesizers include sequencers, rhythm machines, multitrack recorders and more, which allow a single musician to emulate an entire orchestra.
Let’s take this analogy back to the relationship between technology and the enterprise. Like the synthesizer replaces a fair portion of an orchestra, so does technology replace a fair portion of the workforce. Over the last 60 years, technology has replaced manpower in all industry sectors, and continues to do so.
There are at least two things that synthesizers are not good at, though. The first one is to reproduce the warmth of a live execution, when a real musician plays the keyboard and puts his or her feeling and passion into it. The second is to emulate the human voice. While synthesizers can get pretty close to choirs, they stand little chance when it comes to emulating the richness of a single singer’s voice.
On the other hand there is one thing that synthesizers can do and orchestras can’t: to create new sounds that do not exist in nature and cannot be generated by any other instrument. However it still takes a human ear to pull out a great new sound.
What does this tell us about enterprises and technology? While it is a fact that many business and production processes can be automated, some activities are and will remain human in nature. Technology, like the synthesizer, can help us get rid of time-consuming tasks (such as arranging music or building basic rhythm patterns), but remains a tool for humans to achieve their objectives (pleasing the listener or making the business succeed). It can also create opportunities that would not be possible otherwise, exactly like those new sounds, but unless people put those sounds together in a coherent fashion, the instrument alone will generate nothing else than noise.
While in the amplifier analogy, technology is somewhat outside the perimeter of the business (the signal goes through microphones or other transducers before getting to the amplification circuitry), in the synthesizer one, technology is part of the orchestra and makes it leaner while leaving ample room to individuals to create and innovate.
In reality both analogies apply because a synthesizer, unlike the many acoustic instruments of an orchestra, cannot be heard at all without amplification. Therefore technology helps amplify (without distortion) what the enterprise does, while shaping the way the enterprise operates and innovate.