The pragmatics of technology convergence
Henry Ford, who sought common solutions to common problems, would be appalled at the traditional approach to ICT system development.
Today, it would be rare to attend a technology conference without having ‘convergence’ mentioned. It has become one of the truisms of our field. Yet while the rationale may be compelling, it can be frustratingly difficult to deliver. Scratch the surface of any organisation and its processes can be anything but converged. In spite of best intentions, the old language and organisational boundaries are alive and well.
It was once easy to have a specific ICT discussion and have some clarity about where the boundaries lay. However, times change and these boundaries no longer have much meaning. For example, the smartphone is no longer just a telecommunications device. Over time, the single-purpose mobile phone has evolved into a complex processing platform that now defies any of the traditional technology labels. Indeed, the entire value proposition of the smartphone is built on the notion of converged technologies. The simple, lightweight apps that populate modern-day phones in large numbers gain most of their power by bringing together a variety of specialist technologies.
But this is just the beginning. Future converged services are likely to include holographic images, cognitive computing and a variety of Internet of Things solutions. The sheer wizardry of these technologies deserves recognition; however, their real power comes from the outcomes they deliver to the user.
The ICT industry is still built on a foundation of separate technologies, each with its own language, methodologies and collection of enthusiastic subject matter experts. Like it or not, the ICT industry continues to require high degrees of specialisation, and this specialist expertise needs to be valued and nurtured.
The industry is undergoing an internal transformation with important similarities to the industrial revolution. Prior to the industrial revolution, products were individually produced by skilled artisans who were the subject matter experts of their time, each with a collection of languages and processes unique to their particular trade.
The industrial revolution did not end the need for tradespeople. However, it did completely transform that workforce and required that their skills be applied in different ways. These changes culminated in Henry Ford’s assembly lines, where the focus moved to mass assembly based on common components and generic platforms.
Today, ICT is undergoing a similar change. Many legacy systems were developed using an artisan mentality. Business analysts armed with a blank sheet of paper would ask for details of an organisation’s unique requirements. Bespoke systems would then be built. Ford would have been appalled at this inefficient use of skills and resources. His real innovation was not in the way he designed his assembly lines, but in his insights that there should be common solutions for common problems and that very few problems are actually unique.
Today, convergence is not about being an expert at everything. Successful enterprises need to restructure themselves to become part of an ecosystem, where each participant is expert at something. The technological strength of an enterprise needs to be measured by the strength of its ecosystem, not just by its own internal capacity.
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