10 May 2015

The Age of Service – Who's Going to Drive?

Get Back in your Box
If like me you have been in IT for any significant length of time you have probably spent most of that time trying to “win a seat at the table” for your IT departments. You have spent valuable time convincing “the business” that you might have an opinion worth listening to regarding the use of technology within that business. You may well have won that argument on some occasions only to be given the back-handed complement that “you’re business savvy – not like a typical IT guy”.

In these conversations I have always remained patient. I have always resisted the urge to suggest that although I might have a background in technology I do also leave the house and I too have a perspective on the business as one of its customers. I, like most IT professionals have referred to colleagues from HR, Finance, Operations, Commercial, Marketing, etc. as “the business” and worked with others to find ways in which we can “align to the business”.

Throughout all of this I have always resisted the urge to suggest in anything other than hushed tones that “IT is the business” just as any other department “is the business” and IT people do not have some innate disability that prevents them from doing what everyone else in the business is allowed to do… And that is to dare to suggest what the future business strategy might be.

But, have I ever bought into this idea? Not at all. The idea that my ability to understand and use technology somehow places me into a group of people incapable of participating in non-IT discussions is simply a prejudice, and it is a prejudice that I have proved time and again to be unjustified.

So, why is it then that IT is not driving business strategy in the same way as other professions do? Why is it that when IT have the temerity to propose business strategy they are told to get back in their box? Why do I believe that it is time that it did?

Who’s Been Driving?
Let’s look back over the previous decades and see how things have changed. (Forgive the heavy poetic license – I am, after all, just a naive techie).

The Fifties – Age of the Product
In the post war years, the product was king. Everything from domestic appliances to transport to materials was changing and the consumer was lapping it up. This was the age of the inventor and the engineer. Entire businesses rode on the success of a single product and the Inventors drove the business.

The Sixties – Age of Image
Flower power was in the ascendance, and image was everything. Andy Warhol changed the face of product packaging and the world shifted from caring about the product to caring about the image of the product. Inventors dropped back into the shadows and Designers drove the business.

The Seventies – Age of Advertising
Things got a bit more austere in the seventies and shoppers became reluctant to buy. Image alone could no longer sell, but as luck would have it television was on the rise. Colour televisions were the must have accessory and by the end of the seventies video recorders were becoming popular. This gave companies the ability to beam quick fire colourful adverts directly into people’s homes and win valuable market share. The battle was intense and he design alone could not win the war. It was time for the Marketers to drive the business.

The Eighties – Age of Retail
So, product led to image led to advert and finally advert led to rampant consumerism. Buoyed up by low interest rates and rapid growth pockets grew full and retail therapy became a leisure pursuit. Heavy engineering was in decline and the demand for high volumes of cheaper products forced companies to achieve greater and greater productivity at lower and lower cost. Automation was the answer and with automation came “right sizing”. Personnel departments stepped front and centre and expanded their role from one of dispute handler and pay packet stuffer to sophisticated resource managers. This was the age when Human Resources was born, and HR drove the business.

The Nineties – Age of Trade
All this consumerism and efficiency needed a market and that market was not just local. The European Union was born and borders disappeared. Companies went global and the multi-nationals dominated through that happy process of mergers and acquisitions. This was also the age of boom and bust, when fortunes could be made and lost on an ever accelerating stock market. This was the time when “loadsa money” ruled and Finance drove the business.

The Noughties – Age of Analysis
And then it all went poof. The dot com bubble hit and Y2K scared the living daylights out of us. (Yes, I remember consultancies walking around large companies being paid to stick “Y2K tested” stickers on anything with a plug – including the kettle!). We needed certainty, we needed stability and what is more, we needed technology. The three sectors showing the biggest growth in output per hour between 2000 and 2010 were Wireless Telecoms, Computer Manufacturing and Electronics and Appliance Stores. Everything needed to be done at scale. Huge rollouts of desktop hardware, peripherals and software. Shifts to web-based technology and frequent software upgrades. The demand for greater connectivity and the security threat that came with it. We needed to be stable, resilient, safe and predictable and we weren’t big enough to do it. IT wasn’t core to the business and there were experts out there who could take the pain. This was the age of outsourcing and the Consultants drove the business.

A New Age has Come
So there you have it; Inventors, Designers, Marketers, HR, Finance, Consultants. They’ve all had a go at driving the business and each of them still believes they are the business. We still refer to them as the business.

But this is a new decade; this is the Age of Service. IT is a commodity and it’s getting cheaper by the day. Software is not just getting cheaper; it’s getting free! One or two people can now do at home for a few hundred or a few thousand pounds what huge teams used to do for hundreds of thousands of pounds (and very often more). And to make matters worse (or better dependent on your perspective) the rate of change has gone through the roof. Technology solutions that used to take months or years to roll out are now out of date within months. They’re obsolete before the large consultancies can deliver them.

Business has changed too. We don’t provide products anymore; we provide services wrapped around a product and for some companies there simply is no product. It has been pointed out that Airbnb has no property and Uber has no taxis. There are plenty more examples. These companies provide a service made possible by one thing, and that one thing is technology. It is very much the case that for most modern businesses, IT is the service and the service is king!

So, in conclusion, there isn’t a catchy name for this decade (the tenties simply doesn’t work for me) but there is a driver and in my opinion the people who are, or should be, defining the business strategy are the Technologists.

This is the Age of Service and this is the age when IT drives the business.

The Enterprising Architect

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