How is the changing nature of work affecting the role of IT?
If someone were able to go back to an office in 1890, that person would be struck by the slow, measured pace of work. Most interactions were conducted personally or by handwritten letter. Typewriters were but a new notion; few people were qualified to operate them. For immediate -- and often emergency -- communications, there was the telegraph. In a few cases, the newly minted telephone was available for dedicated applications where direct interaction was necessary.
Compare this 1890s environment to today's professional work environment; employees are now able to work virtually anywhere there is broadband access. And as devices and applications become more capable, this move to virtualization is accelerating. Yet the professional work environment today would be at least partially understandable to a person from the 1890s.
That's not necessarily the case going forward. There's a good chance, in fact, that tomorrow's work environment may be entirely incomprehensible to not only the 1890s employee but today's employee as well.
The nature of work is changing so quickly that within the next decade, work will be largely an abstraction associated with the creation of intellectual property. As a result, IT will need to fundamentally rethink both its purpose and the way in which it supports the enterprise.
That's because as the 21st century unfolds, the purpose of business will increasingly be geared toward the creation of intellectual property -- in other words, good ideas. As Drucker famously noted, intellectual property is more valuable than capital, money or labor and can be exchanged for any of them. Yet intellectual property is tenuous and its value is ephemeral -- and time-sensitive. It must be protected and used quickly or its value is diminished or erased; success goes to the company that can identify a market need, develop a solution for that need and exploit it quickly for profit.
Value is created when brains are rubbed together
Intellectual property occurs when brains are rubbed together; that is, it is created when people interact to generate ideas. This traditionally was done in person, but now, and increasingly in the future, it will be done primarily over networks. Why? Because in a global economy, the best people may not be located conveniently to a business campus or office. Increasingly, business success will depend on tapping the best brains to produce intellectual property. These people may or may not be employees in the traditional sense, but most will not want to work in an office or spend a lot of time commuting to one.
What does this mean for IT? In the first place, bring your own device (BYOD) is only the beginning. Imagine BYOD evolving into BYOA (bring your own applications), or more to the point, BYOWE (bring your own work environment). What happens when the edge of the enterprise network is fuzzy, with loosely defined edges that may include the public Internet? How will IT support an environment where it may have very little control over who, or what, is accessing enterprise systems?
Paradoxically, this loosely constrained future work environment must be very secure to be effective. Remember, intellectual property must be protected to hold its value. IT will need to secure not only the enterprise systems, but intellectual property where it is created and as it is being moved from one place to another. The process of forming ideas itself will need to be secured.
To that end, the future of work will be highly skilled people concocting good ideas wherever they may be -- perhaps on a beach or a mountaintop. A professional might only access an ideation space once or twice a week and then may provide a few good ideas that are eventually used by a company to generate revenue. From our perspective, this won't seem so much like work as much as it might seem to be accessing a social media site. Value will be generated, but it will be hard to see.
IT, of course, will need to evolve to enable this sort of work. More security, greater flexibility and quick response will be the hallmarks of an effective IT organization. And this brave new world is approaching faster than we imagine.
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