Opinion: Something bigger than the next big thing

In the past year or so, an idea has been steadily working its way from the back of my mind to the front. This idea is starting to seriously influence the way I see my job as well as my participation in the IT profession. It starts with an observation: We in IT are still playing that goofy game of inventing TLAs (three-letter acronyms). The problem with this is that the proliferation of TLAs just distracts us from appreciating a larger opportunity and draws us down narrow alleys in search of the next insanely great new thing.

TLAs -- BPR, GUI, OOP, ERP, CRM -- and great new things dominated IT in the 1990s. Some of those TLAs hit the big time, and lots of money changed hands because of them.

But that time is over. I don't use TLAs in conversation with my C-level peers, or with anybody outside of IT for that matter. Five or six years ago, sprinkling our conversation with TLAs might have made us sound important; today, it just makes us sound like dorks.

Because TLAs cause us to obsess over relatively small pieces of the total picture, we don't see the incredible opportunity that's staring us in the face. Let's imagine that we do some BPR and then we support those new workflows with systems that use EAI and SOA to tap into the functionality of existing ERP, CRM and other systems. New systems built this way can be assembled very quickly. Next we apply BPM or BAM to those new systems and workflows. Now, moving beyond the acronyms, a truly amazing thing can occur.

If done right, these systems enable people to see their world in real time. Suddenly, they know what's going on day to day. They don't have to wait until two weeks after the monthly close to get good numbers. And because they can see clearly, they can act effectively. As they act, the systems send back real-time pictures of the results of their actions. Then they act again. And so on.

This sets up a powerful feedback loop where people learn fast and get better and better at what they do. This phenomenon is at the heart of what is called "the real-time enterprise." Organizations that start operating as real-time enterprises become like athletes who get more skillful as they play the game.

The real-time enterprise is to the information economy what the assembly line was to the industrial economy. It will be the great generator of wealth in the 21st century. Think about it: Industrial technology was in wide use by the mid-1800s, but the idea of using it to support a certain workflow process called the assembly line didn't catch on until the early 1900s. After companies did begin to organize production using the assembly line, the resulting productivity gains drove much of the economic growth in the 20th century.

Information technology has been widespread for the past 40 years or so. The technology itself is no longer a source of advantage. But the technology can be used to support a process called the real-time enterprise.

The real-time enterprise builds upon the efficiencies of the assembly line and then goes far beyond what an assembly line can do. It gives companies the ability to learn faster and respond more effectively than ever before.

In a world of constant change, the organizations that are the best at constantly adapting and improving are the ones that will thrive. They are the ones that will define the economy of the 21st century.

But we aren't going to convince management of this larger opportunity by telling them what we're going to do with BPR and SOA and ERP and CRM. Instead, we need to show them how IT can put all the technology together and lead in the creation and operation of systems that enable the real-time enterprise to come into being.

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