What’s Coming Out of the Wall?

I’ve spent the past three days drinking from the geek (remember, that’s a term of praise) firehose at MIT. Monday was a Center for Digital Business workshop on IT-fueled business experimentation organized by Michael Schrage and Erik Brynjolfsson (with a tiny bit of help from me). I’ll blog more about this event later; I’m still wrapping my mind around what I learned.

Tuesday was the CDB’s annual sponsors meeting; I gave the lunchtime keynote on Enterprise 2.0, but had a lot more fun listening to presentations on the wide variety of research conducted at the Center.

I tweeted about both these events, as did McKinsey’s Michael Chui; our hashtags are #mitee for the experimentation workshop, and #mitcdb for the meeting yesterday.

Today is MIT’s annual CIO symposium, and I just listened to a panel discussion among Erik B., Tom Malone (founder of the Center for Collective Intelligence), and Jeanne Ross (director of the Center for Information Systems Research) on “The Future of IT.” The panel was moderated by Gary Beach of CIO Magazine, who asked more than one question about whether cloud computing was that next big thing.

The cloud seems to be on everyone’s mind these days; the symposium has a panel dedicated to it this afternoon. Most folk, myself included, think that whether or not cloud computing deserves the title of Next Big Thing it’s a pretty big deal, and will have a large impact on IT producers, IT departments, and CIOs in the years to come.

But what about CEOs and other senior line executives? What, if anything, does the cloud mean for them? A question asked by Gary this morning highlighted one view of the cloud’s impact on top management. He asked attendees to raise their hands if their company had a CEO. Of course, most hands went up. He then told them that the ‘E’ he was referring to was ‘Electricity.’ We laughed and lowered our hands.

Gary’s point was that stuff that becomes a commodity —  that becomes undifferentiated, universally available, and cheaper and cheaper over time —  ceases to deserve attention from the very top of a business. Electricity is vital to business, and at one time let to a massive restructuring of manufacturing industries, but we no longer have Chief Electricity Officers. Why not? Because the time when it ‘changed the game’ of manufacturing is long gone, and it’s now just a commodity that comes out of the wall.

Many cloud computing advocates consciously or unconsciously use the imagery of electricity to describe the shift now taking place. Companies are ‘plugging into the cloud’ and computing is becoming a ‘utility’ delivered from a ‘grid’ of service providers. The conclusion is clear: that IT resources like processing power, storage, development environments, memory, and applications (even integrated ones) will soon come out of the wall reliably and in the required amounts, just like electricity does now. And the consumers of these resources will need to give no more thought to them than I do to the current that cooks my toast in the morning.

This imagery is simple, intuitive, and seductive. It’s also, I believe, deeply unhelpful and counterproductive. The problem with it is that it will lead to conversations like the following:

“Hey boss, this powerful IT stuff now comes out of the wall, just like electricity does. Should we get some of it? It’ll be more reliable and cost less than what we’re doing now.”

“Yes, make it so.”

“OK, what kinds and how much?”

“Huh? There aren’t ‘kinds’ of electricity, and I thought the whole point was that it would come out of the wall in whatever quantity we required. So just plug us in and stop bothering me.”

My main problem with the IT-as-electricity metaphor is that it provides a lovely justification for business leaders to spend less of their time and attention on IT-related issues. I hope all readers are by now thoroughly sick of hearing me say that I believe this to be a very, very bad idea, and a great strategy for getting throttled by your IT-savvy competition at some point down the road.

But cloud computing is definitely moving us toward having something come out of the wall. If electricity’s not the right metaphor for it, what is? As I was sitting listening to the panel this morning I challenged myself to do better. Here’s what I came up with:

Cloud computing is moving us toward a world in which some kinds of business change come out of the wall. Not all types of business change will come out of this wall, but some will. A few of these will be easy, most will be at least somewhat difficult. Some will be profound, some trivial. The different types of cloud-enabled change will affect various constituencies, both internal and external.

The reason I like this imagery better is that it will (I hope) lead to conversations more like:

“Hey boss, thanks to cloud computing some types of business change are now coming out of the wall, just like electricity does.  I’m going to go ahead and plug us into the cloud, OK?”

“OVER MY DEAD BODY!!!”

“Why not?  Don’t you want to change?”

“Of course I do, but I want a BIG say in defining the changes this organization signs up for, and I also want to lead them. Now, what exactly is coming out of the wall, and what’s it likely to do to us?”

“Well, that’s a longer conversation.”

“Well, let’s start having it.”

The imagery we use to talk about big trends like cloud computing is going to shape perceptions, so we’d better be careful with it. I am deeply uncomfortable with imagery that portrays IT as anything like a commodity or utility, because busy businesspeople in most industries don’t give a moment’s thought to commodities and utilities — to stuff that comes out of a wall.

They all care, though, about innovation and improvement and refinement and disruption —  about the many flavors of business change. I think we technology enthusiasts would be well-served if we started talking in those terms, instead of using language that will relegate our offerings to the utility closet.

What do you think?  Do you like the IT-as-electricity imagery?  If so, why?  And are there any problems with my IT-as-change imagery?  Leave a comment, please, and let us know.