FASTforward: The New Polarization

And now a speaker who we’ve all been waiting for: J.P. Rangaswami, CIO of British Telecom, but likely better known for his blog about information, confused of calcutta. He spoke on the new polarization: how the customer is gaining control, and the impact on corporate IT departments.

We’ve changed from the corporate IT environment of 20 years ago, which was completely permission-based (as in, you had to ask permission to get access to information and applications) and created an arrogant, ivory tower attitude within IT departments. Today, the inmates are gradually taking over the asylum, and the rise in user freedom — and the desire for still more freedom — is sending a chill through traditional IT types. Users are finding ways to work around corporate restrictions to make applications from Skype to Facebook a part of their work life.

Part of a driver for this is the increase in the amount of unstructured information, since many traditional enterprise applications focused almost exclusively on structured information. The first step in dealing with unstructured information in the enterprise came through the spread of desktop applications; the next step, which we’re undergoing now, is focused on dealing with unstructured information on the web. I’m old enough to remember dedicated word processing departments within companies, which centralized control of content creation, and the pain of transitioning to decentralized desktop word processing; someday, we’ll reminisce about the days when the IT department blocked access to Facebook from inside the enterprise.

Another driver for the user revolution that we’re undergoing is the rise of peer-to-peer rather than hub-and-spoke as a model for content creation and distribution. We’re all content authors now. We all recommend content to our friends.

A major hindrance to advancing the user revolution — the polarization that Rangaswami is referring to — is the discounting of youth due to lack of experience, when expertise isn’t actually connected to age in the rise of the technology and communities behind the revolution. A second dimension of the polarization is the democratization of participation, with some people rejecting the idea that good content can be created by amateurs, even in the face of success stories like Wikipedia and the whole open source community. The third dimension of polarization is about time, specifically the speed of implementation, with barriers against the use of products that are proudly still in alpha or beta release, such as Gmail and Google Apps.

The new generation of users — and the new generation of Web 2.0 applications — ignore documentation in the form of manuals, but focuses on self-evident functionality and just knowing what the next step to take.

This genie isn’t going back into the bottle: the power is now in the hands of the consumer, and it’s time to get over the polarization and embrace the user-centered world.

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