The center cannot hold.
W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”
For roughly 50 years, IT organizations have been structured according to what my former Gartner colleague Mark McDonald called the “dominant model”: a pattern that was so widely adopted that it was effectively ubiquitous. In this model, IT organizations were designed above all to provide reliable and predictable execution at scale, and every activity of the IT organization, from exploration of a problem space to delivery and ongoing management of a solution, was painstakingly ordered and executed to that end.
So dominant was this model that for decades it was possible to take a professional working in an IT team in any given enterprise, industry, or geographic location, and change any of those factors without interrupting the programmer’s effectiveness for more time than it took him or her to locate their new desk. It was an extraordinary uniformity for an industry that has come to see itself as a key enabler for change. But the dominant model wasn’t really about change. It was about tightly knit processes whose fundamental characteristics were the antithesis of change: stability, accuracy, security, regulated throughput. Change was only tolerated to the extent that it produced improvement in price to performance ratios for these specific outcomes. Change that threatened those outcomes—such as the introduction of personal computers in the 1980s, the increasing ubiquity of personal computing and communications devices, and purchase of Cloud computing services by marketing teams—was and is resisted by many, if not most, IT organizations.
This model is coming to an end. Of course it is innovation in technology that is the cause. The dominant model could not survive the explosive spread and diversification of information technology that has occurred worldwide in only a few decades. The uniformity of culture and technology that preceded the Nexus of forces—Gartner’s shorthand term for the unprecedented democratization of powerful technologies worldwide that began with the exponential growth of the Internet in the 1990s, and is proceeding now with technologies that include social, mobile, cloud, and big data—was key to the success of the dominant model. It is not at all clear what will follow it now that it has been largely if not entirely eviscerated.
IT’s Dominant Model is not the only one dissolving
What is even more important is that these same forces are eviscerating the dominant models for societies at the same time. It may in fact be that the confusion reigning in IT organizations as they seek a new model for purpose and structure is simply a reflection of the confusion that reigns in global societies as they struggle with the impact of the Nexus.
Commentators ranging from Stratfor to Tom Friedman to (probably) your next door neighbor have observed that there is a crisis in global leadership and deep fragmentation in bodies politic. In my book “World Without Secrets,” published in early 2002 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, I discussed the rise of the “Network Army,” a form of social and political movement based on shared (if often niche) values and beliefs that transcend geography and nationality, oriented to action, and enabled by instantaneous, ubiquitous communications and access to information. Our bodies politic are rapidly devolving into network armies that include fundamentalist libertarians in the Iowa Caucuses, right-wing nationalist street gangs in the Ukraine, and a myriad of actors in Arab Spring uprisings. They are everywhere, and wherever they are found they are in no mood for compromise.
In the early days of the Internet many believed that widespread access to information would create a new age of global harmony and prosperity. How otherwise could Google possibly justify the belief that it is not evil? But it is increasingly apparent that something very different has happened. Our barely-born technologies for information manipulation and communication have contributed to, if not created, an enormous rift between social, political, economic, and military elites and the peoples they supposedly serve. The free flows of information that were supposed to create common good have instead helped to consolidate wealth and power on an unprecedented scale, leaving the disenfranchised everywhere to battle it out among themselves for the remaining scraps with little mediation from their supposed leaders.
21st century IT industrialists frack the human ecosphere, extracting value and leaving society to struggle with mountains of waste that include rapidly burgeoning cyber-crime, just as 19th-century industrialists strip-mined the planetary ecosphere and left the local population to deal with ruined landscapes and poisoned rivers. Abandoned and openly manipulated by elites, ordinary citizens worldwide react by turning ever more stubbornly inward to values and beliefs that a massive and increasing flood of information from untrusted sources would otherwise call into greater question with each passing moment. Attitudes substitute for thoughtful consideration; slogans that represent purposeful oversimplifications of complex and often self-contradictory ideals substitute for debate. Political opponents do not merely disagree; they have no understanding of the premises behind their opponents’s positions, and therefore no ground for common action for the common good. Winner-take-all street fights replace bargaining and pragmatic change. In this land ruled by network armies there is no perceived time or space for pragmatic change, only for eager exploitation of temporary commercial, political, or ideological advantage.
Will Innovation End?
This extraordinary age of global discord is fueled by rampant, accelerating innovation that has delivered technology of unprecedented power to multitudes worldwide. It is possible that it will only end when increasingly powerful elites decide that innovation is over.
Cycles of change have already accelerated far past the point where they can be assimilated without substantial pain by humans and the planet we inhabit. Yet it is an article of faith among many, including most of my colleagues at Gartner, not to mention widely quoted gurus like Ray Kurtzweil, that continuing acceleration of innovation is a given.
I doubt it. As my first mentor at Gartner, Mike Braude, once said, “When everybody believes something, that’s very good evidence that it’s not true.” Innovation has flourished in our era because new industrial and political elites have found it to their advantage to make it do so. Innovation can end when those elites or counter-elites decide that more change is dangerous to their interests.
An end to real science and innovation was a key element of two of the greatest visionary masterpieces of the 20th century, Frank Herbert’s “Dune” and George Orwell’s “1984.” In those books it was political, not economic, elites that rang the bell. But economic elites may easily substitute. Currently we have the spectacle of gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson spending millions, perhaps billions eventually, to influence gaming industry players and regulators against Internet gambling. That’s transparent opposition to industry innovation, and it fundamentally has nothing to do with what’s better or worse for the industry’s customers, for whom the “benefits” of gambling are in any case arguable. It’s all about who controls the channels, and monopoly never operates to the customer’s benefit.
Will a new dominant model emerge? Maybe.
Humans crave stability even more than they crave novelty, and ultimately a new—or revived—dominant model is likely to emerge. The one that’s emerging now at the societal level seems to be along the lines of a society in which vast wealth and consolidated industry power openly rules all by setting and enforcing de facto rules, industry by industry, with the help of a paid-for political establishment. (I trust that there is no longer room for argument about whether money rules politics, at least in the USA, where the Supreme Court has just equated unfettered spending on elections to free speech for the second time?)
If the same thing happens at the enterprise level, then the future of the IT organization lies in little more than operational support in an otherwise balkanized enterprise. It’s not a given; it’s a significant possibility in a fractured world where consensus in and outside the enterprise comes down to “just do what we say, and nobody gets hurt.” Of course, running operational support is no mean thing if innovation disappears or is trivialized; once that’s done, what’s left besides operations?
It’s a cardinal tenet of business writing that an author never raises an issue for which she does not have an, if not the, answer. I have done so here, and I apologize to the reader for potentially ruining what might otherwise have been a pretty nice day. I do think it is important to make the point that the dissolution of the dominant model for IT may only be a symptom of a much deeper dissolution of social pacts that is driven by rampant innovation, and that may only stabilize when innovation ends.
If you think otherwise, or if you’d like to comment on any aspect of this post, please do. These ideas are by no means settled, for me or anyone else, no matter how strongly they’re stated here.
P.S. As an aside, when I re-read the Yeats poem referenced above, written almost 100 years ago, I was astonished to see how modern its message is. I could have quoted almost any line in it with relevance to this piece.