Looking back at the various waves of IT it is easy to see them driven by different forces. In the early days, the demands of the technology required setting IT apart as deep specialized skills normally associated with university labs became part of the company and became data processing. As the industry settled down and standardized around the mainframe, operating and data systems, modern industrial IT was born. This is the age that started with the blue suite, white shirt, tie and the mantra of how not to be fired. It is ending in much the same way, although the uniform is now more than likely a pair of kaki pants, a polo shirt and comfortable shoes sitting behind a laptop or a PC accessing the Internet.
We are coming to the end of the era of modern industrial IT, which concentrated largely on building things, managing resources and creating industry solutions. The value created during this period is significant, but changes in technologies, economic conditions and the very success of the modern industrial model are changing views and approaches on IT.
We are starting, stumbling, and transitioning – whatever you want to call it into an era beyond modern industrial IT. Lets call it post-modern IT. I know it is a silly phase that really says ‘future’ after all what comes after now. However, lets use the term because it has become popular in the realm of art and culture.
Post-Modernism, according to Wikipedia (which is a post modern / post industrial construct in and of itself) is
A tendency in contemporary culture characterized by the problematisation of objective truth and inherent suspicion towards global cultural narrative or meta-narrative. It emphasizes the role of language, power relations, and motivations; in particular it attacks the use of sharp classifications such as male versus female, straight versus gay, white versus black, and imperial versus colonial.
Rather, it holds realities to be plural and relative, and dependant on who the interested parties are and what their interests consist in. It attempts to problematise modernist overconfidence, by drawing into sharp contrast the difference between how confident a speaker is of their position versus how confident they need to be to serve their supposed purposes.
Lets unpack that statement to see what it may mean for IT and how it might help us define what is important going forward. The definition above is long, but within it are some interesting points here:
Problems with objective truth and suspicion over global narratives
In a post modern world there is no single universal answer in a post modern world including no single set of software solutions that can solve all problems. A rejection of a global narrative – think ERP, BI, etc – means that IT can free itself from conforming IT standards and recognize that value does not come out of a box or off a download but in how IT is applied to specific situations to change your business performance rather than create business conformance.
Post Modern IT needs to be unique to the business and its circumstances as that is how it is going to solve problems. While it may be technically correct to say you are an XYZ shop, increasingly that distinction is demeaning from a business perspective.
Attacking sharp classifications
Classifications separate things and in the postmodern world, there are many more connections than compartments. This is a big deal for IT as it has been suffering from the distinction of “IT AND THE BUSINESS.” This is a distinction that has been used to keep IT apart rather than being part of the enterprise. It has shaped IT’s management practices and provided mental protection as IT professionals can always fall back on the idea that ‘if only the business knew technology.”
These sharp classifications are falling fast from two directions. First managed services are reducing the need for traditional technology people in the IT organization. Second, the business professionals are increasingly tech savvy, albeit in different ways, but they are reducing the gap as well.
Post Modern IT requires IT to abandon a functional segregation and redefine its role in the entire business rather than just a role managing technology.
Realities are plural and dependent on who are the interested parties
There is no one right answer, no global truth, and every answer is relative. This supports the earlier definition, but it also points out the notion that value is relative and in the eyes of the beholder. That has always been true, but in a world where there is are supposedly no global truths, relative views on value dominate particularly in areas where it is difficult to quantify results.
Post Modern IT has to incorporate and sharp context rather than just provide technical content.
Problems related to overconfidence and the level of overconfidence they need to serve their supposed purpose.
This is an interesting point particularly when you consider that investments in and adoption of standards have dramatically reduce the level of confidence, knowledge and skill required to develop technology. There are hundreds of thousands of ‘apps’ in Apple and Android app-stores not because there are suddenly hundreds of thousands of new technologists but rather that the level of technique required to build them has changed.
In its essence this part of the description is saying – good enough is just that good enough. That challenges IT’s expertise and traditional basis of power. It also fails to recognize the unique and complex challenges of supporting a modern corporate, but its also saying that IT cannot hide behind that complexity and use it as a reason not to change.
Post Modern IT will be driven more by cycle time/time to results and impact than being on time/on budget and within scope.
These are just thoughts generated by unpacking a description that others have ascribed to this term post modernism. They describe it as a reaction/rejection of the modern world and while that may be true in the areas of culture – it is a pretty rejectionist view, one where the only thing that matters is not being what you were. A culture of rejection may be interesting and required to make a transition – but its not sustainable all it is reactionary.
Rather CIOs and IT leaders have to take these ideas and others to re-imagine IT, redefine its impact and value. That will not be easy as many of the foundational elements of IT: Standard technology, Infrastructure and Operations, Management Practices and Metrics are losing their relevance and have to change, some even destroyed.
This will not be a process of regurgitating postmodern ideas that reject the past. Rather it will be in recognizing that all value is local, it is subjective and it will come from different sources. That is what makes the role of the CIO and IT leadership critical at this time – because we are starting to re-imagine IT and re define it.
We are defining the next model for technology and no one knows the answer.