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The Unspoken Truth About IT, Part 3: The comfort zone

By j.ello
August 10, 2011 02:01 PM ET
Jeff Ello

Computerworld - (Read Part 1: "Managing Geeks"; Part 2: "Why your IT Sucks".)

TL;DR on last page!

It's true of love, life, and doubly so of business: When faced with uncertainty, we become slaves to the familiar, torturing logic to avoid discomfort, sacrificing all to appease the devils we know. Spend enough time around computers and you'll realize that humans execute their programming far more reliably. Need to rationalize something? There's an app for that. Technology brings uncertainty to a business world that approaches problems with alliterative repetition: predictably producing pointless pre-programmed paranoia.

Changing that relationship -- convincing others to suspend their code, entertain the unknown and re-evaluate what they take for granted -- is the most difficult and valuable thing that one can do for one's organization, career and life.

Bonfire of the oblivious

As technologists, we need to be clear: No matter what the business is, today technology is the business. The industry is irrelevant. While the '90s were all about computers replacing tools, the first years of the 21st century have been about technology replacing whole industries.

There are no more phone companies; instead we have technology companies that happen to specialize in communications. Cable companies no longer exist; they've been replaced by technology companies that happen to specialize in media distribution. The purists are all gone. In one sector after another, when technology is ready to invade, the core competency becomes technology, and "the business" becomes "whatever the technology allows it to be."

Publishers and newspapers, comfortable in their prestige, have been decimated by competitors that have ridden a wave of new technologies. Book and video stores are being submerged in the flood of online/digital distribution, having ignored the storm until it was upon them. The bulk of trading on the stock market occurs by algorithm, leaving traditional brokers and investors to fight over table scraps. Banks are so universally undifferentiated that people often choose one over another on the basis of website features and phone apps.

Technology allows every musician to be his own label while the establishment music industry suffers -- not from piracy, but from its own inexplicable attachment to a business model that can only be maintained through legal and legislative manipulation.

Polaroid considered itself very technology-oriented, making huge investments in digital imaging in the '80s, but it never brought a single digital product to market. Just as the music industry doesn't understand how to make money off of free music, Polaroid couldn't imagine a business model based on free "film." Polaroid hid in its comfort zone for another decade, and died there.

It doesn't have to be that way. Canon merged new tech with its familiar SLR cameras, inventively ushering in an era in which a $700 portrait camera is better at shooting movies than a $70,000 cinema camera from a few years ago. Canon competed against itself in its own markets, but in doing so, it has remained relevant and able to exert considerable influence on future events. Consequentially, the entertainment industry has exploded with new players and cheap, effective equipment. How will that ripple effect end for Hollywood? See: publishing industry, music industry, et al.

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