The Range of Change

There’s really no such thing as a totally disruptive technology, despite claims by numerous industry pundits that the Internet has or will totally change life as we know it.

In fact, the entire history of human endeavour can be seen as continuous disruptions, one after the other, each adding a layer to the whole. We still use the wheel and fire, very early disruptions that probably caused a great deal of upset when they came around. The chain from hunter-gatherer to agriculture includes the wheel, steam power, electricity, the telephone, the transistor, and the Internet, and is a steady stream of disruption.

The Internet and the Web build on the telephone and exhibit exactly the same network effect. For example, telephones were not very useful until many people owned one and then, rather suddenly it seemed, it became disadvantageous not to own one. During this time, the industry experts were either predicting that the telephone was going to radically change how we live or be a complete failure. The Web has followed this same pattern, only faster.

What’s different this time? First, we have a trade press that can create a perceived revolution, paradigm shift or disruption virtually overnight. Most important, however, is that the Internet has dramatically increased the speed and global reach of business. But let’s not forget that this speed and reach are only possible because the Internet has built on earlier inventions. And the key limiting factor in how rapidly technology and business change is man himself. Herein lies the lesson for CIOs: Yes, complexity and speed will continue to increase. But aside from death and taxes, the other totally reliable force in our history of technological development is that technology will save us from itself. Armour to protect us from clubs, and phone switches to address an impending lack of telephone operators are both precursors to agents, ‘bots, filtering software and personalization, which will help us manage the growing speed and complexity of communications.

The progress of our efforts will be measured by the degree to which we adapt the technologies to meet our requirements; but technologies that try to dramatically change our basic behaviour will fail. Just as virtual dining will never replace the real thing and bars will be recognizable 1,000 years from now, end users will still react to buggy applications, network outages and inaccessible data much the same way they reacted to downed telegraph wires and garbled messages more than 100 years ago.

So expect change, but not wholesale replacement, because humans do not work that way. Expect that there will be ubiquitous access to services, but it will not be uniformly available. Expect a massive proliferation of embedded devices, appliances and intelligent gizmos, but somewhere there still will be rotary phones. Nothing about the Web will change the fundamental definition of ownership of property, despite any changes in the visible boundaries of enterprises as we distribute transactions across multiple entities.

We cannot create systems that are not usable by humans, because it’s not in our nature. However, we can make oppressive systems, and the battle between privacy and digital efficiency will not be easy, nor will it ever be over.

Management must balance the requirement for innovation against the risks of early adoption, should look continually for ways to remove people and steps from processes and, above all, must balance the difficult tightrope between evolving complexity and reliability.

Richard Fichera is a vice-president and senior research fellow at Giga Information Group Inc. of Cambridge, Mass.