Behind the next bubble

harperscover.jpgThe term “bubble” has become such a four-letter word in the IT industry that it’s almost a shame to bring it up again, but unless we want history to repeat itself, we have to.

This month’s issue of Harper’s magazine features an essay by Eric Janszen, founder of and president of financial consultancy iTulip Inc. called “The next bubble,” which looks not only at how devastating the over-inflation of assets can be to an economy, but how cyclical it has become.

“That the Internet and housing hyperinflations transpired within a period of 10 years, each creating trillions of dollars in fake wealth, is, I believe, only the beginning,” Janszen writes. “There will and must be many more such booms, for without them the economy of the United States can no longer function. The bubble cycle has replaced the business cycle.” And although Janszen doesn’t spell it out, IT managers may find themselves among the accomplices.

For most technology professionals who didn’t leave for a dot-com startup, the last big bubble meant that senior management might have held a higher view of IT’s value to the business than they did shortly afterwards. This meant it might have been easier to get budget for a new server, or anything else associated with a Web site initiative. After the dot-com bubble burst, they experienced the fallout in a couple of ways. They might have lost a new dot-com supplier that joined the cemetery of failures. They might have been able to stem the tide of staff departures for supposedly greener pastures. And they probably felt the purse strings tighten a lot.

Apart from the individual mortgage situations of IT managers, the industry as a whole was isolated from the housing bubble. But Janzen’s theory about the next bubble suggests they might be more directly involved. I’m giving away the ending here, but the whole thing is really worth reading (it’s only online is you subscribe to the print magazine, and only if you want to navigate through Harper’s horrible Web site). Consider this a spoiler alert.

Janszen considers a number of possibilities for a bubble, including health care, the pharmaceutical industry, and even the IT industry again with the rise of Web 2.0 firms. These are all ruled out, however. “There is one industry that fits the bill: alternative energy, the development of more energy-efficient products,” he writes, noting the plethora of green startups, the impact on the U.S. presidential campaign, loan guarantees for innovative technologies and a lot of market rhetoric. “When the bubble bursts, we will be left to mop up after yet another devastated industry.”

IT departments spent a lot of last year hearing about green IT, including opportunities to reduce power consumption and minimize the amount of waste they create through obsolete hardware purchases. They will certainly be a part of the audience for the next bubble, even if they aren’t identified as such. Just as companies though they were “getting religion” in terms of creating their Web presence, technology professionals are probably already retooling their strategies to incorporate the green agendas of their management teams.

Janszen doesn’t suggest we should turn a blind eye to environmental concerns, and neither am I. Rather we should approach the commercialization of green ideologies with our eyes wide open. Despite the dot-com bubble, there proved to be long-term value in creating those Web presences, just as there will certainly be a payoff in getting climate change under control. IT managers have to start thinking about what they’ll contribute to this bubble, and how well they’ll be able to manage the aftermath.

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