Enterprise CTOs adopt disruption

It's the million-dollar question: When do you bring a disruptive technology into your enterprise? Adopt too early, and the company becomes a guinea pig, bearing the costs while the technology is refined. Wait too long, and the company misses the opportunity to reap profits and increase market share by being one technical step ahead of the competition. In finding the balance, the CTO becomes corporate IT soothsayer, seeking to divine the moment when a technology evolves from high-geek-factor toy to something that could improve the corporate landscape. Here are insights from three CTOs at different points on the disruptive-technology adoption curve.

Boeing Co., The world's largest aerospace company, is realizing the promise of Wi-Fi, the wireless 802.11b Ethernet protocol, and is a champion for the technology's adoption within the enterprise. Two years ago, the Chicago-based company began Wi-Fi deployment in its manufacturing facilities, and in the process, ushered in a workplace revolution.

Although Wi-Fi is publicized for its availability in limited local "hot spots," such as airports and coffee houses, it's also providing strategic advantages in business settings and promises more as range and connectivity expand.

Workers at Boeing's giant factories use Wi-Fi to communicate and access data dispersed throughout myriad shop floors. "It was an easy business case for us. It's saved our workers time," says Vaho Rebassoo, Boeing's CTO of IT services. "Our people are thrilled in the places where they have it."

At the company's Everett, Wash., factory, a Wi-Fi network allows workers to perform multiple tasks without having to rely on wireline Ethernet networks. Workers access a wireless mobile terminal that tracks tools through the factory. The terminal enables the tools to be coded and traceable throughout the factory, and saves millions of dollars on worker productivity and inventory management, company officials say.

"There is a very strong [return on investment] pull for this," Rebassoo says. "It was a [matter] of saving time. People would know where everything was so they wouldn't have to take a trip through the factory.

"The width of the facility is 500 or 600 feet," Rebassoo adds. "You can save several minutes at a trip. And whenever you can save a trip in the factory is a huge payback."

These workers can also conduct installation functions inside planes more easily using mobile notebooks and PC workstations. "The biggest advantage is that when you get on a plane you can get information so you can get more done without walking off and on the plane," Rebassoo says.

As more and more enterprises figure new ways of deployment and as the hardware infrastructure undergoes continual improvement, Boeing exemplifies the efficiencies that Wi-Fi can deliver, according to Gerry Purdy, principal analyst at Cupertino, Calif.-based MobileTrax, a research and consulting company.

With the onset of Wi-Fi, mobile workers can be continuously connected to business processes, Purdy says. "There are now real-time applications that can report out of a database what you need and deliver it without having to work through processes that are batch-oriented," Purdy says. "This will be done dynamically and in real time. That's disruptive."

In the future, Rebassoo sees even more use for Wi-Fi. In factories, identification tags will be put on tools and parts and be tracked wirelessly; on airplanes, workers will be able to get access to design plans and maintenance videos without having to leave the plane.

DIGITAL IDENTITY is a catch-all phrase at the heart of debates about DRM (digital rights management), individual privacy rights protections, and the development of security models.

But for Phil Wiser, CTO of New York-based Sony Music Entertainment, digital identity is an evolving concept, promising new ways to authenticate trusted users online and bring them together in communities under a viable business model.

Wiser says corporate technology leaders need to embrace sophisticated technologies such as peer-to-peer file sharing and authentication and SSO (single sign-on) models to meet the increasing demand for better and faster data and content delivery.

"Having a digital identity you can trust will provide you with flexibility [in participating in or developing] business models," Wiser says. "This identity will come."

The Liberty Alliance -- a group of major corporations, including American Express, United Airlines, and Wells Fargo -- is taking the first steps toward securing communities of users by developing industry standards for a universal online identity system, Wiser says.

One way that Liberty Alliance members envision managing this evolution is through service-specific identities that offer secure services, Wiser says. "You register with them, and IDs [authentication] start to peer out in a secure network. You build a community that's more interesting than a monolithic system. That's the goal of the Liberty Alliance. It's using the concept of federation. The system lets the users share IDs in a controlled fashion," he says.

Identities will be built around communities in specific markets, whether its the music industry or financial services, Wiser says.

"At Sony, we're rolling out many different music services that have content," Wiser says. By offering extra services such as prerelease music tickets and links to artists' Web sites, Sony Wiser and his company are betting that such services will be more attractive than free music download sites.

For instance, Sony last year joined with Universal Music Group to form Pressplay, a subscription service offering consumers on-demand access to a variety of music that can be streamed, downloaded, burned to a CD and transferred to portable devices, Wiser says.

Still, copyright issues will not go away, and future business models will have to take account of ownership issues, Wiser adds. "DRM will still go on; the debate is around business models," Wiser says. "The debate comes down to usage rules. DRM isn't about locking things up."

MICROSOFT'S PUBLIC BETA of Office 11, with its new XML capabilities, has put a gleam in the eye of Bernard Golden, CEO of Signate, a system design and consulting company.

By introducing XML schema definitions that enable Word and Excel to display, edit, and save XML documents, Microsoft is ushering in an era in which developers can define data that will be much more easily accessible and manipulated by users, Golden says. And as a services firm, Woodside, Calif.-based Signate will be able to integrate new types of data into enterprise systems, Golden says.

"There is a whole disconnect now between knowledge workers in the office and corporate systems, and it's really frustrating," Golden says. "Now with the merging of templates and schemas, you can use Word and Excel as a client. All of a sudden, Word is a client to your corporate system.

"Office 11 XML will provide a bridge between knowledge workers and schemas," Golden continues, noting that much of the work of performing difficult, customized coding will be eliminated by the toolset. "It gets you out of having to custom-code and create artificial structure."

Golden says a major problem for companies is getting free-form documents, for example rEsumEs or RFPs (request for proposals) sent to enterprises' databases, into a defined schema to enable large-scale processing.

"We are currently working on a system for a client who wants to store a lot of data in a secure relational environment, but the users want to access it via common office tools like Excel," Golden says. "Also, they want to enable outside organizations to exchange information with the system, which XML will be perfect for."

Dan Kuznetsky, vice president of systems software research at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, says Office 11 XML shows great promise for enriching the data organization and collaboration.

"The promise of information interchange regardless of what server is being used at the other end is a laudable goal," Kuznetsky says. "The promise is something a lot of people would really use, like businesses exchanging information with consumers, suppliers, and employees."

Kuzentsky does strike a cautionary note on how Redmond should handle and present Office 11 XML. "Microsoft must ensure Office 11 XML is easily accessible to Office customers," he says, noting that any proprietary restrictions imposed by Microsoft on Office 11 XML would cripple its potential. "I'm from Missouri. 'Show me' is my model," Kuzentsky says.

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