As Technology Accelerates, Will We Be Leading or Following?

Analysis of News Events
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Keeping ahead of the economic power curve will require that businesses aggressively pursue new technology initiatives managed by skilled and knowledgeable CIOs.


With the growth in the economies of India, China, and, lately, Russia, Americans in 2008 may soon be looking in the mirror and wondering what happened to the technological advantage we have come to take for granted.


The world is getting flatter by the minute for those who accept the role of technology as the agent for change. And granted, it's probably easier for a country that has primitive systems to install next-generation technology than it is for a country with working systems to upgrade to something that is only moderately better.


With a mature, or possibly aging, infrastructure, the risk for Americans and Europeans is to sit back and resist technological change with a passive mindset. Asian countries are pursuing technology aggressively. The developed countries can either do the same or accept a backseat when it comes to world decision-making and the distribution of economic gains.


Who is responsible for moving a company forward in the areas of efficiency and innovation? The primary agent for change in companies today appears to be shifting from the CEO to the CIO. In today's world, if you don't have the technology, you don't have the edge. Military planners have been aware of this for decades, thus explaining in part the enormous amount of money the U.S. has spent on defense since World War II.


CIOs today are assuming an increased level of responsibility for the direction and success of business and enjoying a commensurate rise in stature as a result. As Mark Hennessey, vice president and chief information officer at IBM says, "CIOs are at the nexus of the new business landscape."


CIOs are change agents for enabling innovation, says Hennessey. "Leadership from the CIO—both as a business executive and IT expert—is actively shaping the destiny of global enterprises."


Hennessey notes that companies most successful in driving innovation use information technology to foster change. As technology has become increasingly pervasive in business, the role of the CIO has gradually risen in significance.


The combination of IT expertise and business insight is shaping up as the magic formula for competing in a global market. Of course, not all businesses are global in nature, and not everyone needs the sophisticated systems envisioned by today's brilliant CIOs. But when one looks at the number of mergers and acquisitions occurring today, one can't help but notice the concentration of resources occurring in the business community. Companies are, in effect, gearing up to compete globally for two reasons. One, it's possible, and two, it's necessary.


As these larger companies acquire smaller ones with various specialties, it's expected that there will be a transfer of knowledge in both directions and that the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts. Some people have noted that the System i often loses ground during and after these acquisitions, when it's replaced with what some perceive as "newer" technology. Let's face it: The System i—and the machines that preceded it—were originally designed as standalone computers for small-to-medium-sized businesses that didn't have the IT staff or the desire to tinker with complicated computers requiring constant maintenance. They sat there and ran day in and day out and never needed much attention. The need for that type of reliability still exists today, but the problem is that technology is changing so fast that in order for a company to remain competitive, it must constantly keep introducing new applications or risk falling behind its competitors.


Let's take a look at some of the technologies that leading-edge CIOs are considering implementing into their enterprises today. These solutions are ones that IBM recently presented to an audience of CIOs after testing on their own workforce. One writer described it as IBM "drinking its own Kool-Aid." The negative connotation of that simile is probably unwarranted, but technologists are still required to demonstrate the economic benefits of any proposed adoption before they can commit to a major technology investment. And some of these technologies have made a name for themselves in the world of gaming and online dating, so the business applications remain somewhat obscure. Remember, however, that the underlying principle is one of collaboration leading to innovation, and innovation is the engine of efficiency.


The first project that IBM is working on is an evolution of the intranet it is calling the On-Demand Workplace Next. The vision of this project is to continually enhance and upgrade IBM's enterprise portal. The On Demand Workplace is IBM's single point of entry for employee intranet access and serves as the door to the company's transformation activities. It provides a personalized work environment for nearly 350,000 employees in more than 100 countries. The vision of On Demand Workplace Next is to couple a live innovation platform—or as IBM calls it, a "perpetual beta"—with the production environment to obtain continuous feedback from employees around the world. The benefit, of course, is that you don't tank your production environment in the process.


The next project is actually several ones that employ Web 2.0 technologies in concert to encourage innovation from all employees and help sterling ideas become reality. The company uses things like wikis, blogs, tagging, mashups (otherwise known as situational application environments), and podcasting to enable collaboration across a globally distributed company. The goal, as IBM puts it, is "to drive business value." Tools like Jams, ThinkPlace, and The Technology Adoption Program encourage innovation, says IBM.


Third on the list of new technologies are virtual worlds. Gamers and social networking fans may have started to use these for fun and social interaction, but researchers believe they have significant business value as well. Leveraging virtual worlds for corporate value "holds great commercial promise," according to IBM. Yet there are concerns about virtual worlds, and IBM is trying to nail down what problems they may pose and how they can be applied to a business environment. To help explore the challenges and benefits, IBM built what is called Metaverse, where employees can meet, learn, and collaborate with colleagues across the globe. IBM describes it as a "secure, virtual environment."


Bluepedia is the fourth technology that CIOs were exposed to at the special presentation. It is an encyclopedia of everything IBM. Think Wikipedia with nothing but information about the company and its people. Bluepedia is a vast collection of general knowledge, a repository of expertise and know-how from more than a quarter million employees. It's simple, it's searchable, and it's easily expanded. It's written by IBMers for IBMers and contains a common worldwide vocabulary and database of subject matter experts in addition to a wealth of related information.


We have written about search technology before and the role it can play in innovation. IBM has taken search technology to the next level with W3 Search. Search engine technology has evolved from text and metadata to "social search." This is where the information is categorized by the IBM community and what the company calls "socialized." The content goes beyond what one would expect to find and becomes a repository of "social metadata." The types of things you might find here are who is working with whom on what types of projects and how people interact.


IBM is still developing Symphony, the office suite that it started giving away for free late last year. While it may have its roots in Lotus 1-2-3 and SmartSuite, IBM has plans for Symphony. The appeal is to develop cross-platform solutions using a collaborative, Lotus Notes type of development environment. Lotus engineers and IBM are working closely together to develop cross-platform solutions that support the Linux client platform. Lotus has developed, and IBM has deployed, an integrated Lotus Notes environment including email, group calendaring, team rooms, and database work flow with Sametime messaging and Symphony offices tools all running on Linux. IBM is betting that Symphony capabilities can spawn a world of innovation around open standards–based document creation.


Whether IBM's vision of the future will come to pass using its tools or whether it will be preempted by the likes of Google, Yahoo, Sun, Microsoft, or others yet to be identified remains to be seen. However, most of the large development houses seem to agree on one thing: Collaboration is the key to a new technological order where skills from around the world can be brought into play at the same time on the same problem to develop a super solution that no one person, company, or even country could do on its own in the same amount of time. Fasten your seat belts, because things are about to accelerate.