PCs

Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Are IT departments doomed?

'Tech-nomads' just don't need them...
As more users get comfortable with computers and outsourcing becomes commonplace, the need for companies to provide dedicated IT staffs could diminish, says Peter Cochrane. So get ready to find your own support.

A profound change is taking place in the IT sector that will have significant repercussions for business, commerce and society - including the possible demise of traditional corporate IT departments.

The first factor to consider is that prices for tech products have fallen to the level of our white and brown goods - washing machines, television sets and the hi-fi. This is coincident with an increasing ease of use that saw the mobile phone make the transition from technology to toy in less than five years, and the PC with its multimedia interface is now well on the road to achieving the same distinction.

Not only are people buying devices almost without a second thought, many find that using them does not require a great deal of thought. It would be untrue to say that it is easy to use either a desktop or laptop, but I think most would agree that increasing numbers of people are having a go and succeeding at both home and office.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule - those who steadfastly refuse to try, or can't, adapt to newer technologies. The good news is that they are now the minority and are becoming increasingly insignificant. Managers and workers who won't or can't use a computer are being sidelined, retiring early, or plain giving up. Not being able to master a PC is now on a par with not being able to read, write, or count. It is disabling!

I can safely predict that the next five years will see computers make the same transition automobiles have over the past 25 years - we will not be treating them with any particular reverence. They will become just another commodity, a powerful tool, a convenience, and of course an example of outstanding technological progress that will be taken for granted like all technologies before IT.

What follows this transition? Well, results from a recent survey show that about 80 per cent of office workers across the EU spend at least one day out of the office and some 30 per cent have no office at all. These are the mobile, home-based workers, who most likely don't have a full-time contract with any company. These 'tech-nomads' are on the rise and are complimented by growing amounts of outsourcing across many sectors. Most importantly, they are largely self-sufficient for tech support.

As a result, there is a new line of company thinking that goes something like this - we don't supply offices, pens, paper, mobile phones, PCs, laptops, cars and technical support for everyone, so why should we supply these things for anyone? This is especially so as the number of part-time, temporary and outsourced jobs rises to above 30 per cent of a company's total workforce.

If we are going to have a 21st century workforce of transient people with a growing list of capabilities who rapidly migrate from one job to another, then it seems highly unlikely that corporations will continue to own pools of computers and employ IT specialists. Moreover, if we are also going to move from business organisation to business organism, with widespread virtualisation and the globalisation that naturally follows, then this change in IT provision most likely has to be a given for some reasonable level of efficiency.

Most of my friends and colleagues consider the laptop or PC they use for their work a personal possession. It is theirs, the information that it contains is theirs and they make every effort not to lose that information through mistake, accident or the deliberate action of other people. In addition, these devices tend to contain all of their life bits - music, photographs, games and other memorabilia - that are now being scanned and stored in a bit form because of the sheer quantity of atoms that we are no longer able to store.

Where does this leave us? It looks as though the clock could be ticking for corporate IT and security departments in the same way typing pools bit the dust over 20 years ago. The tyranny of the typing pool ended with the computer terminal and the PC. The tyranny of IT departments looks to be coming to an end through a combination of smarter users, better software and outsourcing. No longer will your company's IT staff dictate which laptop and PDA you can purchase, which applications you can use, and which networks you can access. You, the end user, will get to call the shots, to choose the tools that best allow you to do your job most efficiently.

The virtualisation of business is leading to a virtualisation of society itself, one that's affecting education, healthcare and all forms of support. Each of us and each family unit is gradually becoming more self-sufficient and less dependent on others for its welfare and survival - if, that is, we have connection to a good network of outsourced and reliable resources to support us.

Column conceived on BA297 flying London to Chicago, dictated weeks later at my home and despatched to my PA via broadband. She typed and emailed to me 12 hours later and I collected at Stansted Airport using Wi-Fi. Revision completed while flying to Edinburgh on bumpy EZY237. Final copy despatched from a hotel on Queen Street via 40Kbps dial-up.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.