On the road with an IT ball-gazer: Forget big data, the future of tech is the 'social enterprise'

Driver, if you were me, sync-'n'-share would BORE you to TEARS too

Comment I spend a great deal of my time out on the road visiting tech firms and tech buyers. By default I spend a lot of time sitting in the back of cars being driven to and from offices and airports.

I love my job. That being said, I don't particularly like chatting about my work outside of work situations, as I am aware that there is a bigger world out of there of loves and lives.

Also, most people haven't a clue what it is I actually do and explaining my job to those driving said cars can be a painful process. But it’s a common enough question: "So what do you do?".

Once I give an answer I can virtually guarantee one of three responses. The first is the audible equivalent of tumbleweed, the second is not much better: "That must be really interesting for you" (notice the emphasis on the latter part of that sentence), and the third and most dreaded response is: "Cool, so what's the next big thing in technology?".

My idea of technology (enterprise software and services) is not the same as my driver's (iPhones, the problem with ageing laptop, and video games)… Still it’s a valid question, I am after all in the crazy position of being paid to predict the future of IT and advise enterprises and vendors on their forward strategies. So let's have a stab at explaining where I see enterprise IT heading, and as you will soon see, like my thoughts, it’s all over the place.

Business in front... party at the back

The "new digital infrastructure" that tech analysts are so excited about is certainly disruptive. Everything from the virtualisation of the data centre to file sync-and-share services to hybrid cloud integration (HCI) are shaking up the enterprise.

The enterprise was once a tightly controlled environment surrounded by a firewall and was relatively easily managed via the provisioning of identities and passwords, but it is undergoing a fundamental rethink. A couple of years ago, my own world changed when I was flooded with enquiries about file sync and share vendors like Dropbox and Box.

I am going to make a public confession: I never really understood what people thought was sexy and exciting about a remote document folder, and I still don't. In fact had there not been more behind this phenomenon than first met the eye, I would likely have gnawed a leg off out of sheer boredom – either that or heaven forbid I could have begun to think that storage technology was somehow cool.

What saved me from such fates was the dawning realisation that file sync-and-share services are a symptom rather than a cause, as indeed is much of what is currently coming out of Silicon Valley. The cause is the emerging digital infrastructure and the outcome, in my world at least, will be the Social Enterprise.

The social business network

As far as I'm concerned, businesses will soon need to make the transformation into the Social Enterprise, but getting there is going to be a hard and frankly brutal path to follow, with many falling by the wayside in the process.

By Social Enterprise I don't mean switching on an activity stream on somebody's desktop, giving them Facebook without the fun or providing workers with "like" buttons and gold stars after they have opened 50 documents. People who propose such things need to be slapped.

By Social Enterprise, I mean the sweet spot between "social computing" – where we have infinite touch points, dissolving and increasingly irrelevant boundaries, decentralised and at best loose controls, all in an unregulated state where the activity is the outcome. Essentially, the outcome is a flattening of the corporate structure.

Of course this will necessarily contrast with the perennial enterprise concerns of being commercially driven and viable, centrally or at least closely controlling and measuring activities, integrating people processes and technology, and all this in a regulated environment.

The "Social Enterprise" is made possible by the new technology that is increasingly making up most businesses' digital infrastructure.

In practical terms what my team and I are looking at right now are topics such as:

  • New issues surrounding security and trust, identities and personas;
  • The negative side of social data;
  • The impact that information governance (or the lack of it) will have on the Social Enterprise;
  • The legal quagmires of managing and mining customer, prospect and employee data;
  • The challenge to the primacy of legacy productivity and business applications;
  • The challenge of HCI (Hybrid Cloud Integration), and how an emerging Integration Platform as a Service (IPaaS) market might affect enterprise IT strategy and architectures; and
  • The shift from a focus on "knowledge workers" to real world workers who make and do things in the real world.

Though firms like IBM and Oracle have very detailed and compelling visions of what the future Social Enterprise looks like and what it will do, the fact is that none of us know for sure.

All we know is that the global IT infrastructure has undergone a huge upheaval, and that the complex but cosy world of the enterprise is being impacted, change appears to be coming whether we want it or not.

The answer to my driver's question: "What's the next big thing in technology?" is "You are". In the future I will have the ability to know more about you than I ever wanted to know. I will also have the ability to interact with you in more ways than you thought possible, to see events and trends developing at an earlier and earlier point until my predictions become unnervingly accurate.

The future is already technically possible and enabled, but the time it will take all of us to unravel both our existing technical baggage along with our perceptions and personal baggage will be what defines the outcome. Along the way we might also consider what is really important to an enterprise (rather than a technologist) and figure out what is not.

Just because we can operate in an everything-everywhere environment doesn't mean we have to do this. We should try to define how a Social Enterprise should look now, otherwise it is likely to define us. ®

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