Technology now defines the business

Information technology has changed quite a bit. At the same time, the business world's reliance on technology has reached a level that was once unimaginable.

Back in the '60s, IT was pretty much confined to very specialized tasks related to data processing. It was a single-device model, totally hands-off as far as the end user was concerned. By the mid-'90s, with the rise of personal computing, technology had moved out of the data center and onto the desktop. In contrast to the days when the mainframe ruled, it was an era of multiple devices networked locally, and the end user was hands-on with the device, albeit with heavy support from the IT department.

Today, IT has evolved even more. The mainframe and PC are both still with us, but the PC era is as much a part of the past as the mainframe era. We live in a world of multiple devices networked locally and globally and oftentimes owned and operated by the end user. Information is shared, collaborated on and distributed in real time. While most of the old tasks are still performed, today's levels of connectivity and functionality allow them to be done in newer and more innovative ways.

What is changing is nothing less than the relationship between technology and business. The old notion was that a business defined the technology it used. If its employees used typewriters, PCs running a word processing program would make them more efficient. If they used ledger books, they would move up to PCs and spreadsheets. Slide projectors were replaced with digital projectors connected to PCs running presentation software like PowerPoint.

The new notion is that often it's the technology that defines the business. Entire new businesses have emerged that are defined totally in terms of technology. Fifteen years ago, a company like would have existed only in the realm of science fiction, but today even mainstream companies can't function without technology.

This is new. If all PCs had gone dark 20 years ago, you could have gone back to your typewriter and done pretty much the same work. If the entire Internet had shut down 10 years ago, the effect on business would have been negligible. Today, either of these events would bring most business to a standstill. Were you able to get much done the last time the network went down for more than an hour?

So for businesses, it's no longer a question of whether to adopt technology; it's become a question of how to use technology to drive things beyond core business functions. IT departments must develop methods for assimilating new technologies that help the business find new ways to differentiate itself in the marketplace. I'm not talking about easy stuff, like integrating the next version of Windows or Mac OS. I mean things like Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, better known as AJAX, for development, and the ability to maximize the potential of new tools for communication and collaboration, such as weblogs, RSS and OPML (Outline Processor Markup Language).

In the past, IT helped make employees more productive. In the future, the challenge will be to help companies differentiate by picking and capitalizing on new technologies that go beyond the core needs of business operations and can set the stage for the next wave of growth.

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