There’s this great moment in the movie “Men in Black” when Tommy Lee Jones is explaining to Will Smith how all of humanity’s greatest technologies – velcro, and so on – were actually lifted from advanced alien civilizations. Tommy Lee holds up a new widget, destined to replace the compact disc, and mutters, “Damn … gonna hafta buy the White Album again … “
That’s essentially the history of IT, in 30 seconds: a procession of better, faster methods of doing the same thing we were doing before. But this time around, we have to change more than the medium. Just as Tommy Lee has to let go of his concept of “the album,” so we who build and implement information systems are now called upon to reject the concept of those systems as we’ve known it.
In my own career, I’ve bought the White Album several times, moving from IT vinyl to 8-tracks to CDs. Those transitions looked like this: from mainframe to desktop; from desktop apps to distributed web apps; and now, from linear, hierarchical processes to collaborative ones.
Of the three transitions, this latest is by far the biggest and toughest – and, in the marketplace, the most unforgiving. We landed here because we leveraged the utility of web browsers more than a decade ago, and gobbled up the savings it yielded in training our employees and information consumers. They knew this general interface, because we all use it constantly, informally, recreationally. Well and good, up till now. But at this point, that recreational technology has left most of us in the dust, and fundamentally changed the way our users think.
Customers, fresh-out-of-school employees and other consumers of our information today learn more about the flow of information and how individuals and groups can use it, before they’ve finished high school, than we currently teach them in college. This generation of iPhoning, iPodding, tweeting, txting MySpacers has not only driven a change in the forms; they’re defining “content” for themselves, and they like it that way.
The irony is harsh, and a little bit funny. This is the world we made; we just fell asleep after we made it. We hitched a free ride on general browser technology and raked in the benefit. Now the world around has leveraged all that utility and turned the tables on us. We must recognize how our users are doing things now, understand it, and re-think our dialog with them. We have to see that they are already collaborative – the Internet and its tethered technologies have made them so – and the future is, in part, already written: we can’t keep re-releasing the White Album. We must change today, more than we ever have before, if we are to have any hope of offering anything meaningful tomorrow.
To say that this prospect is unsettling is a staggering understatement. Authority and accountability will be redefined; empowerment will become an entitlement (it already is!). New boundaries will be drawn throughout the enterprise, boundaries with a different feel and function, and new, emergent rules.
How do we compete in this brave new sphere? How must we change, in order to keep up, and meet these evolving expectations? Collaborative systems and the redefinition of content are already an unstoppable tsunami. Over the next couple of months, we’ll dig in and hash out what this new landscape is going to look like.
Scott Robinson is a consultant and speaker specializing in server-side integration technologies, including MS SharePoint, BizTalk Server and SQL Server. He is currently consulting as an architect for Kentucky state government.