IT can drive revolution in work, MIT professor says

Network professionals have their hands on technologies that could help revolutionize business, says MIT scholar

Network professionals have their hands on technologies that could help revolutionize the world of work, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Thomas Malone said Wednesday at Gartner's Enterprise Networking Summit.

New communication technologies have helped to spark the two biggest changes in human organization so far and are now enabling another revolution, Malone said in a keynote address. Like other topics at this week's conference, his call to action suggested networking is becoming a core aspect of organizations.

The written word helped people advance from bands of hunters to kingdoms, and printing played a role in the advent of democracy, said Malone, author of "The Future of Work: How the New Order of Business Will Shape Your Organization, Your Management Style and Your Life." Now that digital technologies are making information cheaper and more accessible, the business world can become more democratic, he said. That doesn't mean this change will necessarily happen -- hurdles include some outdated labor and intellectual property laws, he said -- but these advances make it possible, according to Malone.

Among other things, companies can now give employees more decision-making power and use more loose teams of contractors to get work done. That freedom can unleash more creativity and innovation, he said, citing eBay, Wikipedia and the Linux community as examples where that has happened.

With their fingers on the pulse of new communication tools such as instant messaging, the Web and VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol), networking experts can play a big role, Malone said.

"Some of the most important opportunities for ... IT professionals in general ... may be not just coming up with the new technologies themselves, but helping to think about how these new technologies can reshape the ways that businesses are organized, the processes by which work gets done [and] the ways that work is coordinated," he said.

Several attendees said new capabilities are the only way to get support for introducing certain technologies. For example, executives won't pay for VOIP just to do what traditional phone systems do, they said. But some downplayed the role they actually play in changing the shape of an organization.

It's hard for networking staff to push for organizational change without a strong sponsor in business management, said Ari Nadin, a network engineer at a large entertainment company. His employer already uses loose teams to produce its most profitable products -- filmed entertainment -- and that organizational model doesn't need fixing. New technologies might help get the job done, but the network isn't seen within the company as a profit driver, so revolutionary changes are hard to sell, he said.

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