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Futurists predict a world of IT fairy tales

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Here's a nightmare vision of a technology-driven future:

Terrorists may attack the internet and the Windows environment, bringing work to a halt globally. A virus placed by terrorists blocks the internet and operating systems worldwide or diffuses through firewalls and systematically deletes huge quantities of business and private data, gaining access through online communities. Common safety measures turn out to be insufficient. Hundreds of businesses lose their organisational memories, intangible assets and intellectual property.

The Chartered Management Institute has dreams, just like the rest of us. You don't need to be told that this nightmare is just one dream future when you read "The Desired Future" and discover:

"Those organisations that maintain physical premises will be run by managers who create a sense of control and calm. The energy that is currently expended addressing immediate issues will be channelled into more productive activities." And Dilbert will no longer be funny, and BOFH will be a quaint memory. Yeah, right.

The report must have cost a fortune. You can get your copy for 200 quid - in May - but you can read the "management summary" today. And what you will learn is that probably, the world will carry on, much as it is now; but perhaps, there will be surprises: "Other versions of tomorrow initiated by unforeseen events are also possible."

The study uncovered 16 such events and developments, such as the world coming under cyber-attack, the "brain-enhanced" world and the world run by robots. No, they haven't been watching The Sarah Connor Chronicles - they've consulted literally hundreds of leading futurologists, technologists, and management experts.

And the bit which makes you sit up and think, probably starts with this:

"Innovation and creativity will have become key to most tasks and having soft and social skills will be critical. On the other hand, hard and technical skills will also be increasingly valued within the workplace as their rarity increases. Nevertheless, there will be a great diversity in the skills of the workers. Employees will be required to be more flexible with regard to organisational needs, e.g. project staffing for efficiency may require service on call and time slot assignments as opposed to work shifts and work days' allocations."

And then the killer: "The use of IT will become easier and the majority of routine tasks will be automated. Social networking and online communities will become common work tools."

If there's anything we can be sure about for 2018, it is that IT will be far, far harder to control and manage.

I think the problem is between balancing the greater simplicity of today's IT tasks, against the hugely complex management problems of tomorrow's.

Yes, setting up a local area network today is vastly simpler than it was ten years ago, when we (just about) had reached a point where the death of a workstation would not bring the LAN to its knees, and where the servers would stay live for a week. Today, anybody can plug half a dozen PCs into a router provided by their ISP, and watch them organise themselves.

But that doesn't mean that the job of IT is easier. Instead, we find that the management of domains, DNS, VPNs and the "presence" tangle is a problem so great that international co-operative groups like the MPF (multi-protocol forum) are needed to find a way of doing it all.

In 1998, it was possible for one Lotus Notes administrator to screw up the email inboxes for 500 employees of a large corporation; in 2008, a switch from Novell Netware to a Microsoft Exchange based system for government means that a whole bunch of George Bush's emails about the pre-Iraq War have gone walkabout. It's a disaster on a vastly bigger scale. That's not "easier" to manage - instead, it's revealing of just how little "management" truly understands about the IT world it now inhabits.

Social networking? We're obviously talking about Facebook, Plaxo, LinkedIn, and other clubs. They will become common work tools? They always have been - they just live in different premises. Forty years ago, they were The Reform Club and The Lotos Society, and in the 80s, you couldn't get a TV show made if you couldn't get into the Groucho Club. And what happens with all these clubs?

Easy - ordinary folk start using them, and then the Important People move on. The telephone was a social networking tool when it started. Now, anybody can have one, and managing directors and CEOs won't answer their own mobiles. Email was the next magic circle; today, not even human resources minions will reply to them. Grouchos is full of PR bunnies. Jimmy Wales has a Facebook "friends" list of 1,809 people - do you honestly think he knows all of us?

So the report on parallel futures makes fascinating reading. You can download the whole Exec Summary in pdf format (you better have a BIG display, or an amazing printer). And it probably is an excellent guide to some of the "virtual organisation" trends of the next decade, too.

But if you want to see the future of IT, go somewhere else. Humans in organisations spend most of their time trying to score points off each other, and any "vision of tomorrow" which doesn't admit that is all fantasy. ®

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