No surprise, I spend a majority of my time talking with people about IT stuff: technologies, products, services, strategies, outcomes, etc.
More often than not, I can create a case that the single most attractive strategic target is enabling "the new user". And, once again, doing so will require a fundamental shift in much of our traditional IT thinking.
A century ago, our economy was based around making stuff: raw materials in, finished goods out. Economists of the era reduced the value-creation inputs to labor and capital.
"Labor" in its traditional sense is now becoming a quaint concept, and "capital" is now used to assemble smart people vs. build physical factories filled with workers.
If you work in a progressive organization, take a moment to look around you. Who's creating real value for the organization, and how are they doing it? Personnel issues aside, you're likely to see prototypical "new users" everyhere: smart people who use their brains to gather, process and disseminate information.
The implications are clear: if the ultimate goal of IT is to create unique and differentiating value, shouldn't we be somewhat obsessed with the emerging needs of these smart knowledge professionals, and making them more productive? They create enormous value today, and their impact is increasing dramatically over time.
Old Users, New Users and the Post-PC Era
Ask most IT people about their users, and you're likely to get a less-than-flattering portrait of people who don't know how to use technology, or -- at least -- don't know how use it well.
By contrast, "new users" are very different. They're incredibly adept in using all sorts of IT applications and end-user devices. They have an amazing intuitive sense of what IT can potentially do. And if they can't get it from their IT organizations, they'll get it somewhere else.
They're mobile. They're social. They're collaborative. They're fast learners. They can often tie hunks of applications together in interesting ad-hoc workflows that are quite impressive when you take the time to figure out what they've done.
And they're not particularly interested in a 1990's-style desktop (or webtop) experience.
Several people in the industry have started to use the term "Post-PC Era" to describe certain aspects of this new line of thinking.
I'd encourage you to not to give in to the obvious temptation to fixate on the physical device (e.g. mobile tablet vs. laptop) and think more in terms of new users -- and what they're going to need from IT organizations going forward.
It's More Than The Sum Of Individual Technologies
When this topic comes up with IT leaders, they can get a bit defensive. They point to how they're modernizing and simplifying the traditional desktop experience, maybe by virtualizing it. They point to the Exchange and the Sharepoint services they've stood up. Maybe some unified communications and telepresence they're working with.
Sadly, I don't think this is going to be enough. All of these are pieces of the answer -- to be sure -- but they aren't being constructed nor integrated nor designed to be consumed from a deep and empathetic view of these new users, and what they'll need to be even more productive than before.
I will say that I do occasionally meet more progressive IT organizations who have started to take a passionate interest in their "new users". They're taking a deep and insightful look at the new generation of value-creating knowledge professionals: who are they, how do they create value, and -- more importantly -- what can IT do to anticipate and fulfill their needs?
These people are moving outside the traditional isolated industry categories of "collaboration", "desktop", "analytics", etc. -- and starting to take a very holistic view. And, any time you step back and look at the big picture, an entirely different perspective can emerge.
That's very cool, in my book.
A Neuroscience Parallel?
I have often found that the best way to explain IT trends is to step squarely outside of the IT domain, if at all possible. So, please forgive me, I'm about to do it again ...
I tend to think of traditional "labor" as muscle cells -- essentially responsible for all forms of movement. The more muscle cells, the more strength potential. Muscle cells can be trained to increase their performance at a variety of tasks, especially repetitive ones. In the physical world, muscle power is demanded -- but not necessarily a lot of smarts.
By comparison, I tend to think of "new user" knowledge professionals as neurons. Neurons have inputs and outputs. The more inputs and outputs (and hence more connections), the "smarter" they are.
For example, our brains have between 15 and 33 billion neurons, with as many as 10,000 synaptic connections each.
How many "new users" do you have in your world – and how many connections do they have?
With that mental picture of neurons in mind, it can help to think about the roles that IT can potentially play in enabling their performance -- and without becoming trapped in the intellectual prison of traditional IT concepts.
- how can IT create more inputs and outputs for "new users" who are creative, collaborative and analytical knowlege workers vs. repetitive task workers??
The more inputs and outputs, the more valuable the neuron.
Moving back to IT-speak, this involves information gathering (search, analytics, structured information feeds, messages, etc.) multiple analysis and collaboration modes (interactive, asynchronous, social, etc.) as well as dissemination modes (authoring, commenting, posting, workflow -- even the ever-popular email!)
- how can IT help "new users" become more agile in creating new connections on both sides?
Neuroscientists will speak of neuroplasticity -- the ability for the brain's neurons to reconfigure themselves in the face of new circumstances. Put differently, neurons can map and re-map. Indeed, many suspect that this capability may be a hallmark of intelligence itself.
The same is true of our "new users" -- we value the ability to rapidly understand and adapt to new topics, new concerns, new information sources, new patterns, etc.
This agility and adaptability stands in sharp contrast to the traditional IT applications that inherently bias towards fixed roles and tasks, linear workflows, fixed information sources and contexts, static functionality and so on.
- how can IT help these "new users" by providing the raw ingredients -- and removing the friction -- associated with what they do best?
In the world of neurons, plentiful amounts of neurotransmitters are a good thing. One source of brain fatigue is a depletion of neurotransmitters; neurons have to scrounge around to get their job done. Put differently, there's friction in the system.
Back to the IT world, how many of your knowledgeable "new users" have to scrounge around to get the raw ingredients they need to get their job done -- information, tools, resources, etc.?
The next time you're in front of a group of these "new users", try asking them how many of them have a more productive IT environment at home than they have at work?. You'd be amazed how many people admit to going home just so they can get some work done.
- how can IT let these "new users" do what they do best without problems arising?
Neurons are wonderful things, but occasionally they either individually or collectively malfunction. From the occasional bad decision to more serious dysfunction, there's a clear role for governance and risk avoidance as an essential part of "brain function".
As we consider networks of internal and external knowledge professionals, the same is true. There's ample opportunity to have a bad day at every turn. And IT clearly has a role in preventing and protecting against those inevitable bad days.
Towards A New Concept?
Standalone legacy concepts like "collaboration" or "workflow" or "enterprise search" or "social" or desktop” or "information governance" really don't do the thought any justice.
It's all of those things, and more. The connections matter more than the things themselves.
Worse yet, use any one of these isolated topics can get you quickly get dragged back into an intellectual prison.
I know how many of you hate it when someone in the industry floats a new term, but I think it's justified in this case.
To support these increasingly important knowledge professionals, I'm going to start using the term "information fabric" to describe an integration of traditional terms and concepts, but pointed squarely at a single use case: making smart people -- our "new users" -- more effective.
My argument is simple: we're entering a post-PC era where these new users are creating a disproportionate amount of value. And, if we're going to point IT at enhancing their value, we're going to have to start thinking about things in terms of an information fabric that works the way they do.
Stay tuned ...