Welcome to the Third Era of Technology
I’ve been part of CompTIA’s research team for the past five years, and it’s been an ideal spot for watching the changes brought on by cloud and mobility. We have conducted multiple research studies on both topics, listened to discussions in our member communities, and participated in conferences featuring leading education. There are a range of opinions on these trends, but we’ve come to the conclusion that cloud and mobility aren’t just next steps on the technology ladder—they are the drivers for a new era of enterprise technology.
What defines an era? It’s not simply cost savings or an increase in existing capabilities, regardless of how large those particular changes might be. Instead, new eras begin when there is new behavior. Businesses create new operating models in response to the new tools available to them, and these operating models in turn unlock the full features of that tool set. The three eras of enterprise technology are marked by distinct behaviors in accessibility, internal use, and management of IT.
In the 1960’s, mainframes introduced businesses to modern computing for the first time. These massive systems were incredibly expensive and only accessible to the companies with the deepest pockets, leading to the famous quote from IBM’s Thomas Watson predicting “a world market for maybe five computers.” Once a company actually got its hands on one of these beasts, only employees with specialized training could operate them. This was the birth of the IT (or MIS) team, and that team was also responsible for all management of business systems, including decisions on new investments since even those decisions required specialized knowledge.
Obviously this model evolved over the next two decades, but the real behavior shift came with the introduction of the PC circa 1980. Computers had been dropping in price, and PCs represented a new entry point, making technology accessible to companies of all sizes across many industries. Internally, the use of technology could now spread far beyond the IT team—most employees could now perform their own computing work without knowing all the details of the heavy lifting done by the back office. This drove a major change for IT, who now had to support that back office along with all the front end demands. Technology management changed in small ways. While every department could now make requests based on these new capabilities, most decision making still resided with IT as other functions built their technical knowledge.
With cloud and mobility, all three areas have changed again. Access to computing is incredibly broad, with the average U.S. consumer now juggling around 3 different devices according to Google’s Connected Consumer Study. There is practically no barrier to entry for businesses to adopt technology for their operations or for any of their employees. This drives the most significant change: as everyone becomes highly familiar with technology, everyone wants to start participating in the decision process. IT now has to oversee a chaotic environment and clearly communicate the differences between consumer applications and enterprise requirements.
Over the past year, there has been a definite emphasis on business transformation as these behaviors settle into place. At CompTIA, we identify companies going through this transformation as digital organizations. These companies are building new architectures to take full advantage of cloud systems and mobile devices; they are focused on the use of data as the currency of this new economy; they understand that security and privacy are focal points that require full-time attention.
The challenge and opportunity for IT is in defining their role in these digital organizations. They are no longer the gatekeepers of technology, but they are still the best source for securely integrating all systems across a business. Technology eras are not short events. If the past five years have been about early adoption of cloud and mobility, the next twenty will be about refining behaviors and defining responsibilities. We’re just getting started.
Seth Robinson is the senior director of technology analysis for CompTIA, the leading trade association for the IT industry. In this role, he analyzes technology trends in the IT industry and provides insight into trend drivers and future direction. Seth has led research studies on cloud computing, mobility, Big Data, and IT security, among other areas. Previously, he spent 10 years in processor development at IBM, building the chips for the Xbox360, PS3, and Wii U. He has been cited in various media outlets, including Wall Street Journal and USA Today, for his thoughts on how businesses are using technology and how the role of IT is changing.