What’s Coming Next in Digital and Social in the Enterprise?

I’ve been taking a close look at what’s over the enterprise horizon for much of the year as the pace of technology change continues to accelerate, as most experts have long predicated and which will only continue. New platforms, technologies, product, services, and models are appearing at a constant pace these days. Many topics that are hot today were barely on anyone’s radar a short while ago, from the blockchain and holacracy, to social performance management and trimodal IT, to name four of a great many important topics that have been significant recently.

The result is, if you’re not currently dedicating a significant amount of time in some part of your organization researching what’s happening, the digital world is almost certainly leaving you behind. In fact, as I’ve been making the point recently, our traditional methods for adapting to and absorbing new technology are breaking down in the face of the torrent of digital innovation our organizations are currently experiencing. In short, we need new models and effective strategies for technology adaptation, and the good news is that some workable approaches are now emerging, discovered and proven in recent years new through bold experiments by IT and business leaders in the field. Even though cultture and practices are likely to be the biggest obstacle, as Isaac Sackolick recently observed, we still need new processes that span IT and business that can greatly accelerate our ability to adapt to the marketplace.

Tracking Digital/Social Innovations with Business Impact

But, as we’re sorting out how we should strategically manage our technology portfolios today, we still need to keep a close eye on the stream of what’s happening in digital and social, making sure key developments are on our evaluation and adoption plans as appropriate. To that end, I’ll be taking my latest survey of high impact new digital technologies likely to offer significant advantage to the enterprise in the very near future for my upcoming session at Dreamforce 2015 next week in San Francisco.

What is next in the enterprise for digital and social

One thing is sure however: Digital transformation must take place hand-in hand with human transformation. So I’ve broken the list down into those two swimlanes, as we have to both change our technology landscape and ourselves into order to more successfully adapt. I’ve also included three verticals that I believe are experiencing particular disruption/renewal due to recent digital advances.


Technology Dimension Human Dimension
Wearables Future Skilling
Digital Assistants Citizen Developer
Robotic Process Automation Work Hacking
Mind/Machine Interfaces Networks of Excellence + Change Agents
Virtual Reality Platforms Trimodal+ IT
Microframeworks InnovationDevSecOps
Low Code Platforms Digital Management Models
Applied Machine Learning New Digital Career Tracks
AI-Based Social Analytics SocBizOps
Community Management-as-a-Service Social HR and Sales
Social Aggregation 2.0 (Apps/SNS Silos) Swarm Intelligence, Working
Social Payments Social Performance Management

Note: I’ve included links to some of these advances above, but will explore them individually in more detail on ZDNet soon.

I also believe there are some major developments in healthcare (wellness tracking, social electronic medical records, healthcare communities), financial services (cryptocurrency, partner networks, digital advisors), and higher education (adaptive learning communities, student/alumni communities, and new digital learning spaces) that represent major opportunities for the majority of organizations in these sectors.

To get a deeper exploration of each of these topics, please attend my Dreamforce 2015 session, titled “Vital Trends in Digital/Social Impacting Your Business in 2015 & Beyond” at the Hilton Union Square, Continental Parlor 5 on Tuesday, September 15th at 2:30PM PT.

Update: My deck for this session has now been posted on Slideshare.

Additional Reading:

The Enterprise Technologies to Watch in 2015

How Digital Collaboration Will Evolve in 2015

How Organizations Can Address the Challenges of Modern Digital Collaboration

It’s now clear to me that we must take bold new steps if we are to truly improve the state of workforce collaboration in most organizations. As the majority of us are doing it today, digital collaboration is largely stuck in the doldrums.

The known issues are numerous: The tools themselves are either too complex, specialized, or advanced, or worse, not a good fit for our organizations but are appealing due to unrelated reasons like vendor stability or wide adoption elsewhere. Often, our workforces are too entrenched in older ways of working (or, just as likely, woefully untrained in the new.)

Collaboration itself is now appearing everywhere, as a digital capability embedded in many of our technology products. This fundamentally human group activity — which is absolutely vital to produce results in today’s knowledge-driven organizations — has either been added as a secondary ‘feature’ in many of our existing applications, or is literally raining down upon us from the cloud as hundreds of startups continually try to improve what’s possible and get into our organizations to better meet our users’ needs than we are today, often as I pointed out yesterday, by appealing to them directly.

Resolving the Digital Collaboration Paradox

Enterprise Collaboration: A Highly Varied Strategic Capability We Must Enable

We’ve also seen that collaboration is often held up as a virtue in relative isolation, but not well-connected to how work actually gets done, or poorly understood as a human skillset so applied even more poorly with the technology, and certainly not last, applied as a one-size-fits-all technology solution, when collaboration-critical domains like STEM, creative disciplines, innovation, sales, and marketing, could not possibly have more diverse scenarios and styles of collaboration.

The result is that our organizations are filled with rather disjointed collaborative technology. We find ourselves generally limping along and reporting rather limited (albeit actual) results as all of these pieces and trends of today’s digital collaboration puzzle fit together relatively poorly.

In recent years, I’ve been working with many organizations on many of these collaboration challenges. But it’s been the last couple of years that these issues have come to a head in many companies. I’ve previously highlighted some key trends that are making it very hard to improve the status quo in most large organizations.

But perhaps most pernicious of all of these issues is the traditional view that collaboration is a monolithic thing we must all do the same way. It’s not. It’s a highly varied, innately human process that has unique needs and requires unique capabilities to optimally support different kinds of work, and it’s time we recognized this. That most organizations look at document-centric tools like SharePoint as a universal collaboration solution, or social business platforms like enterprise social networks as the ultimate end-goal for how we work together is now evident as both a failure of imagination, and failure as a strategy. It’s not working well in most organizations, and most of us now realize it. I speak to organizations almost weekly that are trying to ‘rationalize’ their collaboration strategies in this complex, fast-changing, and difficult new operating environment, but unsure what to do about it.

Fundamentally Changing How We Manage Digital Collaboration as Organizations

While there is probably more than one answer to this set of problems, it’s obvious that what most of are doing — while actually producing some useful results — is falling far short of what’s possible. What’s worse (or terrific, depending on how you look at it), is that we’re now being dragged wholesale into confronting the issue by the business-side of our organizations, who are simply not waiting for IT departments for leadership any longer. They want collaboration solutions that fit them instead of the abstract needs of the organization as a whole, understand the work they do locally, and that employ new technologies to dramatically improve what they do. As a result of inaction in most organizations, shadow IT is off the charts this year, and the majority of it is related to tools that support some form of collaboration or data sharing.

Fortunately, our options are simple: We can do one of two things. A) Ignore these issues and attempt to lock out any unofficial collaboration tools, a process that I can now assure you will do more harm that good, and won’t stop the trend, as users in aggregate now own and wield more and better IT than most of our organizations, and aren’t listening to us.

Or B) we can find better ways to tap into demand and unleash innovation — in particular, by employing business/user change agents and other proactive/transformational capabilities — when it comes to one of the most important work activities in our businesses, and establish a sustainable rate of change, all the while spending our scarce centralized tech resources on keeping new collaborative tech secure, broken out of silos, well-integrated, universally searchable, as part of a rational yet far more diverse and fluid collaboration architecture.

In this model, salespeople, operations staff, project teams, R&D, customer care, and many others will benefit by helping bring in new collaborative technology optimized for their needs, and to which they are increasingly reaching out and adapting to anyway.

This whole conversation is all part of the future of work and the future of IT that I’ve been exploring over the last year. In case you’re wondering, a newly inclusive, open, and decentralized model of digital transformation appears to be an broad and significant new trend. I’ve been documenting compelling examples in large organizations, including companies like Liberty Mutual, whose CIO Mojgan Lefebvre considers shadow IT, rightly, as a vital proof-of-concept led from outside the IT organization. I believe there is a fairly short path to changing our posture to take advantage of these combined trends to our tremendous benefit, tapping into new collaborative capabilities, distributed change capacity at scale, all while still meeting our obligations as technology professionals and keeping new diverse IT solutions secure, archived, governed, managed, and protected.

In my opinion, most organizations no longer have a choice, as the the traditional legacy methods we’ve long used to manage the IT lifecycle have become inappropriate for how technology is used to meet business needs in many cases today. Perhaps the most challenging: Success will require business and IT to come together like never before.

This is a vital industry conversation we need to continue having together, working through the issues that will surely crop up as we go down an exciting and rewarding but also no doubt very challenging near-future with new models for enabling our organizations with technology.

Additional Reading

How to Deliver on a Modern Collaboration Strategy

Online communities are now producing results, reporting ROI

IT Leaders Are a Critical Catalyst for Unifying and Leading Digital Transformation

How Digital Collaboration is Fragmenting, and Why It’s a Major Opportunity

A significant issue has been developing in digital collaboration for the last several years, and it’s now starting to become somewhat acute. I’m referring here to the pronounced trend towards app, environment, and channel fragmentation. Over the last few of years, I have been speaking with beleaguered IT managers who are struggling to cope with the sheer proliferation of software, systems, and applications that purport to help workers with collaboration. It’s not a new problem, and smart folks like Dave Winer have long worried about it, but it’s now becoming a vital strategic concern.

A variety of factors are contributing to fragmentation: Every department and function now seems to have existing vertical systems — such as their standard HR, sales, or customer care solutions — that have recently added social media, collaboration, sharing, messaging, shared content editing, document attachments, activity streams, rich user profiles, and so on to their feature sets. At the same time, many exciting new applications have emerged on the scene recently that seem nearly must-have to many of us: Dropbox, Box, Slack, even arguably IBM Verse. All of these in turn compete with the officially sanctioned collaboration applications already in the workplace currently, from e-mail and SharePoint to whatever enterprise social network and unified communications platforms have been selected under the CIO’s purview.

The Horizontal and Vertical Fragmentation of Digital Collaboration Tools

Some of these new collaboration applications are brought through the front door in by lines of business that feel they have special needs. Others are so-called “shadow IT” deployments by teams and departments who believe they require certain features or prefer the ease-of-use of alternative collaboration tools, but don’t want to go through the formal hassle of getting blessing. Finally, a good many come in via legacy adoption via mergers/acquisitions or through individual users using their own devices and app stores.

Note: User-driven IT itself isn’t the problem here, it’s actually a key source of opportunity if wielded properly in a network of enabled/supported change agents.

Related: What Does a Modern Collaboration Strategy Look Like?

Too Many Collaboration Tools, Not Enough Collaborative Reach

Whatever the source, this trend is creating dozens — and sometime hundreds, in large enterprises — of collaborative silos, where participants and their information are trapped, inaccessible and invisible to a broader range of potential actors. Worse, unlike the original communications tools in the industry — like e-mail — the walled garden trend that started with the great consumer social networks — largely to support business models and not to help users — has decisively shifted to enterprise collaboration software today. Thus, unless you have a license and are using the exact same app, chances are increasingly poor that you can collaborate with someone unless they are using the exact same toolkit and environment.

I’ve pointed this out in the past, the we have an urgent problem with our collaboration tools not talking to each other. I’d say it’s now a critical issue that threatens the very high-value, human-centric activity that we are supposed to be enabling: Better collaboration. In addition to the typical common issues, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that users have moved away from a collaboration tool because they can’t easy work with customers, or business partners, who are usually outside the company and don’t have access to the same tools or environment.

Now the issue is not just that we have barriers, but that we have so many new applications that we are employing, very few of which are interoperable. The result is that we are creating a growing array of inaccessible bubbles of insulated collaboration within our organizations. Much of this is done in the name of achieving worthwhile goals: Accessing powerful new capabilities, modernizing our workplace tools, improving security, and/or making sure we have vendor stability. However, we’re learning that we are often creating a solution that’s potentially much worse than the problem we’re trying to solve.

Commercial Silos of Social and Collaboration

In Social, We’ve Moved Once from Open Federation to Silos. Now We Must Move Back.

One of the challenges of adopting new digital solutions for collaboration has been that they’re often championed by those for whom technology isn’t their primary background. Consequently, federated architectures, open standards-based technology, and interoperability usually aren’t high on the list of sought after features for collaboration tools by most business users. Partially as a result, growing islands of collaboration have become a very real problem today, as lack of decent connection between our collaboration tools is — instead of creating a large and growing body of collective intelligence accessible to all — is actually resulting in parochial backwaters where too few people use the tools to make them worthwhile.

Certainly, some of the latest additions to the industry pool of collaboration options — and yes, I’m talking about Slack here — are designed specifically to address this issue, as it becomes one of the largest — and most ironic — new obstacles to effective collaboration: Too many apps and channels for working, none of which share well with each other. Solutions like Slack make all the knowledge and content flowing through our many individual business applications, visible from one collaboration platform. And that’s certainly one major way to solve the problem. Certainly, approaches like OpenSocial have tried to tackle it in other ways, and now the W3C Social Web Working Group is looking at the issue as well. So perhaps we’ll still end up with an SMTP for collaboration, but we don’t have it yet.

In the past, I’ve exhorted our industry — especially the most strategic and important aspect of it, social collaboration — to stop the fragmentation and create interoperability standards. But vendors — who can only exist when there are enough customers — have little incentive to help others, nor do their users insist on it. In fact, I’ve steadily come to believe that the problem with not be solved by vendors, customers, or even standards bodies, each of which has a) corporate goals contrary to a real solution to making collaboration tools work together, b) don’t fully understand the details of collaborative systems and their management well enough, or c) can’t gain traction because of the first two issues, respectively.

A Quick Back-of-the-Envelope Proof

As a cross-check, especially since I’m seeing the flow of new collaboration applications increase rather than decrease, I took a look (results in first diagram above) at some of the top types of collaboration tools (content/document management, intranets, social collaboration tools, ESNs, unified communication platforms, e-mail, and mobile collaboration tools) and put them on another dimension against various leading corporate functions (marketing, sales, operations, customer care/support, research & development, HR, legal, IT, and supply chain), and I was able to quickly find many apps — often some just newly emerged — that could fit in each and every intersection between the two axes. This would not have been possible 2-3 years ago. In other words, everything we do is quickly becoming collaborative.

And as a result, the risk is that soon little will be, as collaboration is divided across hundreds of isolated systems that we mostly can’t see and don’t have access to internally, sharply limiting the rich results from collaboration that only open technology can uniquely provide: Working out loud, open and transparency business practices, a corporate body of knowledge, and reuse and learning from everything that the company knows, all lying searchable on the corporate network.

Related: A CIO’s Guide to the Future of Work

The Issue of Collaborative Silos Must Be Solved. And Because They Must, They Will. But When?

Instead, as the issue becomes a top one for many corporations, I now believe it’s more likely that we’ll see inclusive approaches (again like Slack and a few others like Xendo have done) that ensure these barriers don’t form, that are based on market drivers and ultimate customer value. In fact, I now see that some customers are increasingly frustrated that they can’t use their shiny new tools to work with everyone they want, or are cut-off from the communities, channels, and knowledge that they need to do their job. Fortunately, these stakeholders are the ones likely to drive the changes we need to see.

This may perhaps, at least for the smart software companies and open source projects that understand this increasingly urgent issue, be the next big opportunity for them: They must be the integrating force, the unifying center of collaboration for the enterprise, bringing all the major applications, systems, and data pools together — and make it easy for IT or others to bring in their own local apps — so that we no longer have such highly ironic digital isolation.

I fully realize this issue is not one that people can get as passionate about as the main topic of contemporary collaboration. But unless we fully understand what kind of results we are really creating, we’re going to be building as many walls and barriers as we are new modes and venues of digital collaboration. If we want, we can greatly accelerate a new and better way, a more unified way, and push for interoperability that’s as good or better than e-mail has, then truly create the collaborative worlds of our dreams.

Finally, it’s not up to someone else to make sure this takes place. It’s up to us.

Additional Reading:

The digital collaboration industry continues to flourish

Watching digital collaboration evolve: Key events in the last year

How to improve global workforce collaboration

How Should Organizations Actually Go About Digital Transformation?

This is now the question that is top of mind in a large number of enterprises today, as speeding up adaptation to rapidly evolving digital markets is now not just a requirement to grow today, but increasingly to survive.

This is not incautious language and I’ve been pointing to the relatively urgent data for several years: One major slip as organizations fully digitize their workforces, supply chains, and externally facing products and services is easily enough to put an organization into significant and potentially permanent decline.

Recently, I’ve seen increasingly precise frameworks and round-ups — such as this great summary by Fabien Osmont — emerging lately on what companies should be doing to prepare for the full-on of digital transformation. One of the latest is BCG’s new transformation process for CEOs looking to make major changes. I’ve further argued that 2015 is the year that digital transformation should be taken on as a first class citizen all the way up the board of directors, something that’s gratifying being borne out in actual practice now.

Initiating Digital Transformation: The Journey for Board of Directors, CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, CMO, and CDO and the Communities

Such depictions of the necessary steps are certainly welcome, but should only be used as a starting point and with a large grain of salt given how much we still have to discover: We are still in the cave painting days of digital, as I like to say, and possibly the single most important activity of the entire effort is to be avid learners of the lessons that result. And then respond quickly to them. If there is a second urgent lesson coming from the stories of digital change, is that swiftly making moves builds momentum and can make leaders almost uncatchable. It’s one of the reasons that continuous delivery is a common component of high performing digital teams.

Another item unfortunately missing from almost all of the many views of digital transformation today, is simply the significant inherent structural barriers to change, including lack of effective mindset for digital. The processes and frameworks almost always greatly under-appreciate how much change — which is rapidly growing — in the digital world, and how poorly prepared, both in terms of scalable, repeatable processes for change and to the organization’s natural inclination to pro-actively seek urgent changes out. Over the last several years, it’s become abundantly that traditional, linear processes just aren’t up to the task, yet that’s what most still prescribe.

The inadequacy of traditional processes for digital change and evolution became obvious years ago when we learned traditional project management fared rather badly when applied to IT and software development in particular. This realization spilled over to many other arenas. New open methods emerged that were much more effective in a fundamental digital arena. These included open source methods, agile development, peer production, crowdsourcing, mass collaboration, social business, devops, and so on. Not coincidentally, each one of these advances ended up involving open, self-organizing collaboration among many well-informed individuals, instead of a few central leaders. And each development was a breakthrough in terms of performance, but confined mostly to digital domains.

Now the same is beginning to happen with business, with new digital era management methods informed how we can better run our organizations. Change agents loosely connected to transformation efforts by networks, as I explored recently, are now the order of the day, skipping past those unwilling or unable to join the organization in building towards the future, finding those most passionate about and willing to lead the change with local knowledge and motivation.

Communities of Change Agents Key to Sustainable Digital Transformation

Organizations, if they even hope to have the bandwidth and capacity to sustain change, which I’d observe, is essentially becoming continuously, must structure their digital transformation effort in a new way. Gone is top-down change. Gone are hulking centralized bureaucracies that have limited ability to effect change across today’s large global organizations. Instead, lightweight nimble networks of change agents across departments, divisions, and teams that align themselves to the organization’s journey is what will be required. Is this the open, crowdsourcing of transformation? Yes, and much more.

Based on a growing number of examples from top companies, I believe it’s now clear that new models and methods are the only real way to sustain change and any transformation process must acquire and wield them at the core of what they do. Leadership is still required to focus, guide, and inspire, but the work must be done by the entire organization (or least the parts most willing to.) I’ve synthesized a model for how this will look above, involving all the key stakeholders in the entire organziation. I encourage your input on how we can improve it based on the latest experiences in the field. I believe it’s an incredibly exciting time to be in business, and it will be a rewarding one for those that apply the right new methods, matched to the contemporary operating environment in which we find ourselves.

Additional Reading

The Strategic Role of Digital Networks in Corporate Leadership Today

The Role of the CIO in Digital and Social Business Transformation

Closing the gap between executives and digital transformation

Why the Underlying Laws of Cloud, Social, and Digital Business Matter

I’ve spent much of my Memorial Day Holiday here in the United States pondering the Red Queen effect vs. network effects, seminal laws of technology and business both, that are often held as gospel by their adherents who believe they are the natural and intrinsic properties of their operating environments (digital ecosystems in this case.)

Both hypotheses apply to any connected, relatively closed environment of some kind, which very much includes everything from traditional marketplaces, online communities, app stores, cloud services, SaaS, enterprise social networks, social media, and cable/video networks to e-mail, telephones, and package delivery. I cite these, as many practitioners don’t even consider system concepts when trying to figure out why they aren’t succeeding as hoped, despite those very ideas defining the rules of the playing field they’re working upon.

Both Red Queen and network effects have years of rigorous research and thinking to back them up, and as far as they go, they make real sense of the modern world as explanations for why things are the way they are in various places. This includes how organisms compete, survive, and thrive in the natural world or how networked products and services grow and maintain dominance on the Internet, respectively. These combined environments will ultimately lead to what I’m currently calling the 4th Platform.

Digital Business: Network Effects and Red Queen

The issue here is looking at why there are so many so-called ‘winner-take-all’ players at the top of the technology industry, especially on the Internet. In the shadows, nowhere near as successful, there are usually hundreds — sometimes thousands — of also-rans, depending on the sector, who struggle mightily, but usually fail. Rarely are the winners dethroned, though it does occasionally happen (see: AOL, MySpace, Friendster, RIM/Blackberry, all top digital players in their day.)

What triggered this line of thinking was Gartner’s fascinating new report on the Magic Quadrant for Cloud Infrastructure, which makes the stunning claim that Amazon now has 10 times more cloud computing capacity in use than the entire total of all the other 14 providers combined. The company is deeply wired into over a million customers’ ecosystems, and thousands of online products. By any estimation it is uncatchable.

Sidebar: Interestingly, this hasn’t stopped technology leaders such as Staples CIO Tom Conophy from stating last week that they’re going after Amazon “in a big way.” This despite the fact that both organizations aren’t even playing on the same digital meta-level.

Or is Amazon uncatchable? Don’t we just need to go ‘up the stack.’ As it turns out, not if it just leads to commoditization.

If traditional enterprises — and yes, more likely, startups — can only understand the fundamental rules by which the Amazon, Apple, and Facebook et al became leaders, the reasoning goes, we should be able to use those very rules against them. We should then be collectively able to out-innovate, out-invest, out-maneuver our competition and get to the top of an increasingly shallow but very, very steeply inclined pile of winners.

Deep thinkers in this space like my industry colleague Simon Wardley note that network effects create enormous inertia for change that make it very hard for a new player to get started, even if they’re much, much better. Worse, this is true even if you realize this and try to organize and optimize for it. You are simply spitting in the wind. Market-leading network effects, in fact, nearly always easily trumps the seemingly-powerful Red Queen Effect.

None of this is a new discussion of course, and the power laws of digital networks, such as Reed’s Law, have been relatively well-understood for at least decade. But their effects are now inexorably felt in the traditional business world like never before.

Using Networked Relationships Built on Enduring Digital Values

Ultimately, as organizations increasingly perceive the imperative to put a digital layer over their entire organization, even completely re-imagine it for the new models of digital business, there are some key fundamentals that we have to remember to close the gaps:

  1. Count on nearly everything in the ecosystem to eventually drop to effectively zero cost. Do not build your digital business along the commoditization axis. Only the underlying properties, like network effects, are exempted from this rule and this is a potent realization. We will eventually get the cost of nearly all technology to nothing, making replication and competition both easy and rampant. This isn’t where most businesses would like to be. However, network relationships like communities, total aggregate API integrations of partners, total daily users contributing value, these cannot never be copied whole cloth on an increasingly low cost scale. When people are involved, commoditization is not possible, and real, meaningful human relationships then become the strategic coin of the digital realm.
  2. Use differentiated models for commodity elements of digital business, versus the methods you employ for the innovative (and most important) elements. Social business, bi-modal IT (actually, tri-modal), devops, and even agile, are still the mantra here. These methods have been discovered to operate on the scale, speed, and collaborative dimensions required of today’s rapid digital cadence. Even better, they connect people the best way — that we know of so far — with how modern technology profoundly alters and — mostly — improves the way we work.
  3. If you are a large organization, you’ll have to operate in sometimes truly unexpected new ways to deliver well on digital. In particular, this means powerful new network models of organization structure — in IT and everywhere else — as well as new widespread digital workplace skills to be able to change at a sufficiently high and sustained rate.
  4. In other words, most organizations must rapidly evolve their operating models to adapt to the rules of the digital networks. A few have, but most still have not. There’s still time in a few industries however, but not a tremendous amount. For most, however, it’s now later than they think.

How IT and the Role of the CIO is Changing in the Era of Networked Organizations

As I’ve examined the case examples below, and talked with many top CIOs about how they were operating their departments over the last several years, it’s become clear that the contemporary IT organization — at least ones that are successfully leading their organizations into the future — is now wielding a new kind of power.

I don’t mean power in the traditional, hierarchical sense through departmental mandate, titles, and the org chart. In fact, those don’t seem to mean nearly as much as they used to, as I hear more and more concerns about the growth of shadow IT and the lines of business increasingly going their own way with their budgets, all with minimal formal IT involvement.

Yet, looked at another way, these very trends — worrisome as they should be for most CIOs — might actually represent vital asset pools and change capacity that we could actually tap into and guide, as Red Hat CIO Lee Congdon strongly suggests.

Instead, I mean power in the sense of genuine, highly effective influence through trusted collaboration, proactive enablement, orchestration of bottom-up change agency, and new forms of digital leadership. We know that as our organizations update how they operate in today’s digital world, which has fundamentally different rules and highly effective new ways of working, the way we manage and achieve large-scale group outcomes is by leading through new networked models.

In other words, moving from inefficient hierarchies to self-organizing communities to deliver IT.

Legacy IT versus Next-Gen Contemporary IT: Change Agents and Networks of Enablement

The need to greatly augment our IT ‘metabolism’

Some would say that grassroots models of business change have always been with us. They would be right in a strictly literal sense, as the actual means and methods are different now. In my analysis this is clearly a new phenomenon in in terms of how new forms of influence are actually employed, how easily they can be scaled, how much fewer resources are required to marshal change, and how constituents can be cultivated, shaped, and self-organized more rapidly than ever before.

In the era of mass technology proliferation, with millions of new apps and billions of always connected devices and customers, the IT department in many organizations has become a tiny and badly outnumbered island of routine automation and application delivery. We’ve learned that such a small capability can’t possibly keep up with today’s truly vast digital change.

IT has also long been the primary guardian of data and infrastructure, along with its collective operational continuity and governance. Together all of these functions, given the nearly flat increases — or even declines — in IT spending for 2015 in a time of the all-time greatest amount of tech change, tend to wag the dog, making it very hard to focus on what IT needs now most to do: Lead the company through the increasingly urgent generational imperative for digital transformation and innovation.

Related: Is it IT’s last chance to lead digital transformation?

Blazing a new IT trail: Internal competition and change agency

Recently we’ve begun to see CIOs, and this includes CTOs with the same responsibilities, work with their organizations a very different way. We started to see it when Graham Holding’s Yuvi Kochar willingly decided to compete as an ordinary — albeit a highly informed, invested, and aligned — service provider to his own stakeholders using a lightweight and highly maneuverable cloud portfolio of solutions, instead of an iron-fisted controller of corporate technology pushing aging and difficult-to-maintain legacy on-premises systems:

As a result, I have structured my corporate technology team to be a service provider to our businesses. To ensure flexibility and agility required by our M&A strategy, I am pursuing a 100 percent SaaS technology portfolio. We acquire SaaS services, value add them with high-caliber functional support and project management and offer them as a service to the primarily functional teams at our businesses. We keep overhead costs to a minimum. Our businesses prioritize the agenda for our services by paying only for the ones they want and use.

It also happened when David Bray, the highly-respected and effective CIO of the FCC, needed to overhaul an increasingly complex technology landscape with antiquated applications. Bray’s open approach to the FCC’s IT strategy ended up with him listening to and then backing local change agents closer to the situation who suggested their own solutions, which ultimately led to considerably cost savings, faster deployment, and lower maintenance overhead. It wasn’t easy however, as this is not the way technology bureaucracies — especially in the public sector — have traditionally sourced ideas and direction. It was an struggle at first to work this way, says Bray:

There were a lot of skeptics to this new approach. Several who wanted to not make the change or even wanted to follow the much more expensive approach. My role was digital diplomat and ‘human flak jacket’ to help deal with any friction because this was a new way of doing things. With the SaaS approach, the data was not going to be kept onsite. We would be leveraging code and security provided by a cloud-based vendor. And in the end, it came together.

There are similar efforts in the queue with the Commission’s change agents for 2015. Working together, they demonstrate daily that positive change agents can transform how the mission and technology of the FCC best serve the public.

From this, and the stories below and other sources, we can begin to piece together a new mindset for modern IT and what I’ve previously called the New CIO Mandate:

Legacy IT Approach Next-Gen IT Approach
Impose tech decisions as faits accomplis Pro-actively collaborate on tech decisions
Lead all technology efforts Support tech leadership across the company
Sole source technology provider Confidently compete as a service provider
Hold stakeholders at arm’s length Collaborate with stakeholders on their turf
Wait for change champions to approach Actively seek out change champions
Occasionally listen to change champions Actively supply change champions with resources
Bureaucracy Diplomacy
Constrain IT to strict standards Enable local innovation within bright lines
Chokepoint for IT realization Coach and ombudsman for decentralized IT realization
Service delivery Learning and change delivery
Strategic initiatives, Center of Excellence Network of Excellence
Single or Bi-Modal Tri-Modal and beyond
Waterfall, ALM Agile, DevOps

Here are other essential stories of CIOs realizing IT in new, more decentralized, collaborative, and bottom-up ways:

  • AstraZeneca. CIO David Smoley remade IT at the pharmaceutical giant to be a learning and collaborative organization focused on the customer and technical leadership, he recommends, “that, in addition to embracing technology, they better understand the business, focus on behavior, be bold, and build their networks. People rely less on curated information, he explained, and more on networking and learning what other businesses are doing.
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The incoming CIO Brook Coangelo had to rebuild the entire IT brand from the ground up. Central to this was including internal customers closely in the process of technology change, often taking their lead, using an internal culture he calls Nimble.
  • Etisalat. Francisco Salcedo, senior vice president of Digital Services, at the telecommunications firm reports they have begun to “provide IT services within the organisation in new ways as opposed to traditional methods, and become a business growth enabler, rather than a bottleneck.” Key to this process: “Focus on adding value to the business, while leveraging IT expertise of partners to support business experts in generating new revenue streamlines.”
  • IBM. New IBM CIO Jeff Smith says that for him, “clarity is more important than certainty, course correction is more important than perfection, self-directed teams work better than command and control, and innovation is for everyone, not just the select few.” How does he enable next-gen IT? One key way: Smith created an internal Kickstarter-like crowdsourcing platform called ifundIT. With it, anyone can formulate a project or problem that needs to be solved, and raise internal funding to get it accomplish. I think this is a terrific example of how to use internal networks — social and otherwise — to rapidly engage, then actively enlist, change champions and supporters.

All of this certainly represents considerable and difficult changes for many IT organizations, yet the benefits are clear: A rate of internal change that more properly matches today’s operating environment. But there will be bumps, as with what Tony Hsieh has dealt with at Zappos in fundamentally remaking the organization into a holacracy — a somewhat comparable change to what is described here, but org-wide, well beyond technology — some creative destruction is almost inevitable.

However, as with almost everything with technology change and transformation, the CIO has an absolutely key role to play today, and can be a leader or a follower as the business has to move now and seize opportunity in today’s challenging markets. As Adobe CIO Gerri Flickinger recently said, we are entering a new golden age of IT, if you’re ready to move to the next level.

Additional Reading:

Going Beyond ‘Bolt-On’ Digital Transformation

Closing the gap between executives and digital transformation

The Rise of the 4th Platform: Pervasive Community, Data, Devices, and Intelligence

These days it’s still pretty common to talk about social business, mobility, analytics (especially when it’s called big data), cloud, and the Internet of Things — SMACT is the current acronym for all this — as on the agenda of key digital improvements underway in the typical enterprise. While many organizations have executed solid starts against these fronts, and are usually just at the end of the beginning overall in incorporating these technologies into their business, the majority still have a good way to go for reasons I’ve explored recently on ZDNet and elsewhere.

In recent months, I’ve started to be asked what’s coming next in digital and the enterprise. While I examined the more strategic up-and-coming technologies for the last year, this doesn’t really begin to paint the strategic picture that organizations must manage to now. After all, a laundry list of technologies is just that, and won’t create results by itself. But carefully situating emerging technologies within a business in a way that truly takes advantage of their innate and unique abilities to realize value creation does, and is the essential description of the hot topic today among CIOs and others in the C-Suite, digital transformation.

After all, the whole point of digital transformation is realizing that technology fundamentally changes how you do business in just about every way. It therefore poses very difficult questions to business and technology leaders: Who best should do our work today? Where does the value come from? What do these new ways of working actually look like? How can we best organize to achieve them? To answer these questions, we must understand the overall narrative of our modern digital journey: Where is technology actually taking us? What is it making possible that wasn’t before? How can these possibilities give rise to uniquely valuable new types of assets that would allow us to sustain our businesses?

The Rise of the 4th Platform: Digital Community, Devices, Data, and Intelligence

These are a lot of open questions, but we do have a sense of some of the answers now. For example, in terms of who does the work and where value comes from, we’ve learned that the network can and will (and should) do most of it, if we only enable the possibilities through platforms and digital communities. The answers to other questions are more complex, though their broad outlines are becoming clear as well, such as how can we best organize this year to achieve digital change. Why are they tough quetions? Because while digital devices and networks enable broad and reasonably well-understood realms of possibility, how precisely they apply to our industry, our business, and our corporate culture is often very different between organizations.

So when we talk about framing up the overall digital journey we are all on, the discussion is often about “computing eras”, or the emerging of new types of platforms (the cloud, for instance.) while these views are often gross simplifications, these are also useful conceptual frame-ups. Probably one of the most widely referenced view these days is IDC’s articulation of a vision they’ve dubbed the 3rd platform. In the large, this view does indeed describe what’s happening, though it leaves out some of the unique flavor of what’s special about what’s happening in digital today. I’ve previously described some of the more detailed possibilities in a view I called Web OS, but this really never became a popular way of thinking about it, though it did provide the extra layer of detail many need to understand what’s happening and has held up well in my opinion.

What’s Missing, and What’s Coming for Today’s Strategic Digital Perspectives?

Probably the most important concept that’s almost always missing from these views is the unique power of networks, especially ones made of people. One of the more remarkable is the sheer number of connections between nodes on the network that are potentially possible. Old ways of thinking about digital created largely point-to-point connections. The advent of social media made potent many-to-many network effects possible. The key word here is possible. Just because we’re connected to just about everyone in the developed world 24 hours today, doesn’t mean we actually realize that possibility. But today’s global networked platforms gives rise to the potential. In fact, for many reasons, having the ability to tap live into one’s social network is often better than having data on-hand, which is likely to be out-of-date.

So, for example, my view of what’s coming next, I don’t track the amount of data that is accumulating today. That is a great deal and growing rapidly by every account. But data isn’t useful until it’s needed, instead the ability to produce whatever is needed, when it is in fact needed, has far more ultimate value. So in my view, it’s key to understanding the strategic business nature of digital networks. This is a key point that John Hagel wisely made in a recent entry in his excellent Power of Platforms series:

But in a world of mounting performance pressure, we should also expect a fourth form of platform to become prominent. Dynamic and demanding environments favor those who are able to learn best and fastest. Business leaders who understand this will likely increasingly seek out platforms that not only make work lighter for their participants, but also grow their knowledge, accelerate performance improvement, and hone their capabilities in the process.

The core concept here is that whoever learns fastest, wins, and those with the best platform and ecosystem around it, will have value that can be tapped into more rapidly for sustained strategic benefit. Plus, it will ensure coverage of virtually all of the top level types of collaboration in business today.

What’s Next: Networks/Sensors In Everything, Machine Learning, and Us

I’ve been speaking at conferences for the last year saying that just about every non-trivial object will be connected to our networks within 10 years, as part of the rapidly emerging Internet of Things revolution. With the introduction of low power protocols like Bluetooth 4 and ultra long-lived batteries in devices like the tiny — and terrific in my experience — Tile locator, I now believe it’s going to be more like five years.

It’s also clear that mobility is going to transform and essentially disappear, into us. Wearables and smartphones will very quickly quaint when everything we need can be beamed into our heads or embedded as needed. Computing devices will almost completely disappear into our personal and work objects, and even ourselves. While this is certainly as scary a topic as the loss of privacy on the Internet was to many of us a decade ago, it’s clear that our computing devices are going to vanish and meld into the backdrop, like any sufficient mature technology. In fact, thinkers like Koert van Mensvoort have suggested that almost every technology eventually becomes naturalized. This will be the case with the end-state of digital experiences as direct man/machine interfaces, which have long been in the lab and is becoming increasingly sophisticated en route to the market.

Thus it won’t be long from now — as strange as it may seem today — that we can turn on the lights in our office just by thinking about it or order a product from Amazon after having an algorithm sift through the reviews for us simply by conceiving of doing so. We will reach a state of shared perception through all of our mutually connected devices and having knowledge networks consisting of our social graph, all devices, and the machine learning capabilities we trust most. In other words, collaboration with people and our machines will soon be truly frictionless.

The Fourth Platform: Ambient, Pervasive, AI-Boosted Digital Networks

All of this together: Networks of people in digital communities, pervasive sensors/controllers in nearly everything, and new types of truly frictionless interfaces will give rise to new types of ecosystems, including on-demand app creation services such as the now-famous IFTTT service. The 3rd platforms enabled enormous commercial ecosystems such as those created by Google (especially their decentralized AdWords network), Facebook, Amazon’s Cloud, Apple’s phones, iTunes and App Stores, and the list goes on. In the 4th platform, these platforms will become even more important — rightly or wrongly — and the most useful ones to us will literally become part of our mental furniture. The fourth platform is ambient computing, which strong components that turn network potential from our favorite ecosystems into data, and then data into knowledge, and make it as easy as just thinking about it. The next generation commercial ecosystems will even augment time and thought for us, even predicting what we’ll need before we figure it out ourselves.

If all of this sounds a little futuristic, it is also now all just within the realm of possibility, and so it will almost certainly happen, it’s just matter of exactly when. It also gives our organizations a clearer target to shoot for, at least if your organization considers moon shots. Because most organizations are struggling with being a digital contemporary in basic terms, much less getting ahead of the game. But there are ways of getting there, if organizations are prepared, it just takes a vision of the future to aim for.

I’ll explore more about the fourth platform soon, but would love to hear your thoughts on how networks, people, and devices are coming together to create all new possibilities for the enterprises.

Additional Reading:

The Community-based Ecosystem View of the Next-Generation Enterprise

What Most Digital Strategy Underestimates: Scale and Interconnected Change

A CIO’s Guide to the Future of Work


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