Opinion by Thornton May

IT and the forever revolution

We live in revolutionary times, and we have to figure out what we are going to do about it

crowd protest
Pixabay (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

In this still young century, the IT industry has become obsessed with transformation and disruption. These two terms are little more than new labels for a centuries-old phenomenon that normal humans refer to as “revolution.” IT is all about revolution. It may seem paradoxical, but moving forward, organizations need to add revolutionary thinking and revolutionary behavior to standard operating procedure. In the future, to be sustainably successful, IT executives will have to become revolutionaries — at least part of the time.

Working with the College of Engineering at Ohio State University and the trade and professional organization AIIM, I recently launched a research program focused on revolution in the IT ecosystem. 

When I began my research, several colleagues initially responded, “Isn’t this just more marketing hype?” Certainly, attention-grabbing marketers and seed capital–craving startups love to label every new micro development in the IT space as “revolutionary,” and the word peppers click-bait headlines touting “the big data revolution,” “the IoT revolution,” “the mobility revolution,” “the algorithm revolution,” “the DevOps revolution,” “the machine learning revolution” and “the connectivity revolution.” If everything in IT is revolutionary, is anything in IT revolutionary? Have we overused the word to the point of rendering it meaningless? 

It is my intention to wrest the term from the mitts of selfish and small-minded attention merchants and vulture capitalists and return it to where it belongs — into the arms of operating IT executives. 

Revolution everywhere we look

Every industry, every organization, every discipline is undergoing a revolution right now. In 2000, military historian Martin van Creveld argued, “Ours is an age in which revolutions have been made easy, cheap, and plentiful. For years on end, not a day seemed to pass without some earth-shaking upheaval bursting on us” (Foreign Policy, Summer 2000). If revolution is the new norm, must we conclude that revolutions are no longer revolutionary? 

Historically, the term “revolution” has been reserved for epoch-making upheavals in human affairs. Do we live in a time when every day is a new epoch? Climatically, property and casualty insurers will attest that we now experience 100-year floods every year. In our own space, Tomas Soderstrom, the charismatic chief innovation officer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, argues that an IT decade is actually three years. Research at the Olin College of Engineering indicates that social generations have compressed from being 30 years in length to just three years. Geoffrey Moore, author of Escape Velocity and prescient commentator on how the digital world really works, explained to me that “every five years in the technology sector, things change enough to force me to write another book.” 

The bottom line is that we live in revolutionary times. We have to figure out what we are going to do about it. 

The good news is that there is a boatload of knowledge accumulated by people who lived in revolutionary times. Scholars have studied revolutions for centuries. Some of the lessons learned may be helpful for modern executives. 

The most important thing to know about revolutions is that you are in the midst of one.

H. James Dallas, formerly CIO at Georgia Pacific, COO at Medtronic, author of Mastering the Challenges of Leading Change and board member at several publicly traded companies, believes you are in the midst of a revolution “when you know what you’re doing is not the right thing and you don’t know what the right thing to do is yet.” 

Nancy Schlichting, retiring president and CEO of Henry Ford Health System and author of Unconventional Leadership: What Henry Ford and Detroit Taught Me About Reinvention and Diversity, believes that a signifier of revolutionary times is that

“It was no longer radical to try something radical in our field. It was logical to try something radical in our field.” 

After figuring out that you are living in revolutionary times, the next critical question is how to lead while in the middle of a revolution.  

Situational awareness

A good place to start is to understand the forces swirling around you. Revolutions all have three critical ingredients: deep discontents, passionate beliefs and ardent hopes. If you understand the discontents, beliefs and hopes of key current and emerging stakeholders you have the beginnings of your revolutionary map. 

Passionately held beliefs and ideas have been labeled the “radioactive substance of transformation” (Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot, The Shape of the New). Tracking the disruptive ideas circling your enterprise should not be relegated to staff functions or external boffins. They can assist, but responsibility for placing company operations in context of “the ideas of the time” should fall to operating executives. 

In the knowledge economy, where massive computational and analytical resources can be marshaled at the touch of a button (or a conversational command to an A.I. appliance such as Siri, Cortana, Alexa or Google Home), understanding idea flow is critical. 

Revolutions are polarizing. There are players supportive of change and actors resistant to change. When possible, step back and listen to the story each community is telling. 

The stories being told inevitably come back to discontents and hopes. If you can accurately map these, you are well on your way to prospering in the midst of the revolution.

Related:
Computerworld's IT Salary Survey 2017 results
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