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How technology is changing IT

July 19, 1999
Web posted at: 11:51 a.m. EDT (1551 GMT)

by Nora Isaacs


(IDG) -- A wise person once said that the only thing constant is change. This adage surely rings true for IT professionals heading into the next century, whose jobs entail incorporating a dizzying number of technological advances.

"Technology is changing at warp speed," says James Canton, president of Institute for Global Futures, a San Francisco-based think tank that advises Fortune 1000 companies on the impact of leading-edge technologies on customers, markets, and the economy. "If you were to disappear and come back after 90 days, the Net would have doubled, bandwidth would have increased by a third, and there would be a half a dozen innovations you would have missed."

With technology changing at breakneck speed, where will that leave IT professionals 20 years from now? According to some predictions, in a place where users and customers reign supreme, where virtual offices are the norm -- and where IT's role and structure have radically changed.

The customer is king

"IT is the strategic weapon for the battle of the customer," Canton says. With Internet commerce rapidly changing the economy, customer service will soon become the driving force behind any IT job. As customers drive changes, corporations must scramble to keep up with their demands. Canton predicts that in 20 years, as much as 30 percent of today's industries will be gobbled up by the Web and simply disappear.

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"The central issue is that they will not change fast enough to meet customer needs," Canton says. "Customers will either reward or punish you for how you create values such as cyber service."

Other changes may also help increase the emphasis on the customer.

Chuck Martin, chairman and CEO of the Net Future Institute, in North Hampton, N.H., and the author of The Digital Estate and Net Future, says the biggest technological change for IT professionals will be rapid advances in real-time predictive modeling technology. Although organizations such as banks have been using this predictive modeling technology for a long time, Martin sees a change on the horizon because of the emphasis on the customer.

"We are moving away from the product of a company having value and moving toward a time where information is more valuable than the product," Martin says. Martin uses the example of a buying a car on the Web. Today, a consumer will look at cars, choose a red one, and then be directed to a place to buy a nice red car. In the future, the car company will be analyzing data around the country to see what consumers are doing. If they decide that many people will want red cars in the future, the company will connect in real time with a red-paint manufacturer in Taiwan.

All hail the user

With technology embedded just about everywhere, the user will take on a much bigger role. It will be up to IT professionals to create intuitively friendly operating system environments and applications that will produce efficiency, speed, and value for the user.

"Extranets and the globalization of IT organizations have turned IT on its head, introducing dynamic career paths for programmers, network security directors, and application developers, who must now build from the user's perspective," says Amy Rusko, managing editor at the Charleston, S.C.-based IT & Internet Business Report. She notes that although tools that are customer- or user-centric are often more complicated to create and maintain, this is the way things are headed as user demands increase.

Other technology predictions may also affect both users' and IT professionals' careers.

  • Graphical interface tools will get simpler so users can change, update, and customize, leaving those in IT with time for planning business strategy.

  • Speech-recognition technology will dramatically change the role of people in the software development community.

    "We have this device that has a lot of technology in it, but the burden falls to the development community to be able to factor usability," says Tony Wasserman, a principal at Software Methods and Tools, a San Francisco-based consulting service. Wasserman predicts that as speech-recognition technology becomes widely used, the number of people with no computing skills will also grow.

  • Web-based applications will displace traditional application software.

    "Browsers are becoming the default way to access information," says Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster at the Institute For The Future, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based think tank.

    For IT folks, Web-based applications still mean development, but a different kind -- fast-moving, lightweight applications with front-end browsers.

    "The idea of fiddling with Microsoft applications will evaporate," Saffo predicts. While this takes the burden of constant upgrading and maintenance away from IT people, shifting to browsers also comes with increased user expectations.

  • Some say integration is another key word of the future. IT jobs may become less about technology itself and more about the strategy of linking technology together.

    "It will be integrating everything, doing e-commerce, planning a business strategy -- all before you have your cup of coffee in the morning," Canton says.

    What office?

    Another trend that is designed to make life easier for users -- remote access -- may significantly complicate IT's role as well. With an increase in bandwidth and the use of broadband technologies, the work environment will be accessible at any time from any place. The expansion of telecommuting may mean the near death of brick and mortar offices, which creates an interesting challenge for IT folks.

    "How do you create a virtual network for three-quarters of an organization that doesn't have an office?" Canton asks. One answer: Advances in bandwidth will let people easily teleconference, download large documents, and use digital video streaming media.

    The entrance of broadband into the consumer environment also means a big jump in remote workers. Fast Internet access will drive every business, and the Internet will be available on every device -- cellular phones, wireless pilots, and as a channel on digital television.

    Many IT professionals, such as programmers, will be able to work from anywhere. The downside, of course, is that people with no offices can't leave their work at the office. When the office becomes anywhere and everywhere, IT could potentially become a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job for all IT professionals.

    A radical restructuring

    All of these technical changes mean that in the next few decades, IT's role in an organization will undergo a fundamental change. The shape of that reinvention, however, depends on whom you ask. Canton envisions a future in which IT professionals will understand business strategy and business-critical applications, become customer centric, and get fully involved in strategic planning. Embracing these trends is critical for survival.

    "I'm forecasting now, particularly post-Y2K, that as many as 15 percent of all companies will transform their IT staffs," Canton says.

    Such a transformation involves a holistic approach to IT.

    "The concept that we have regular jobs and IT jobs will be gone," says Leilani Allen, a partner at Summer Point Consulting, in Mundelein, Ill. "Everything will have a systems component."

    Allen compares today's IT departments to the traditional "ghetto" society.

    "If you take the historical meaning of a ghetto, it's where a society wanted to contain a group, as well as the group itself wanted to preserve themselves," Allen says. "As we enter the next century, those ghetto walls will have to come down."

    As those walls crumble, a people who understand IT, understand customer service, and are extremely computer savvy will populate more leadership positions.

    "The whole era of IT as a support function for marketing, finance, and sales is history," Canton says.

    The open question, according to Saffo, is whether IT will centralize or break within smaller departments.

    "The creative IT department is going to be where it's broken up so that IT people are out on the front lines," Saffo says.

    "The combination of standardized protocols and component-based software will make it less and less sensible for corporations to have their own IS staff in the traditional sense," says Chris Meyer, partner and director of the Ernst & Young Center for Business Innovation, in Cambridge, Mass.

    Rather than blending into the background, Canton sees a future populated by what he calls "IT SWAT teams" where IT staffs are expandable on demand, deployable virtually and physically -- any time and any place.

    Exactly how this will happen within the new IT structure depends on new technologies and user needs. Just as technology drives changes, change drives technology. According to the experts, the next century looks like an airplane runway that never ends, with the technology careening faster and faster toward an unknown terrain.

    10 technologies that will change IT as we know it

    • Web-based applications
    • Increased bandwidth
    • Broadband technologies
    • Speech-recognition technology
    • Predictive modeling technology
    • User-friendly GUI tools
    • IP telephony
    • Remote devices
    • Extranets
    • Standardized protocols

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