Today, it would be rare to attend a technology conference where convergence is not mentioned in some way. This topic has become one of the truisms of our industry.
The rationale of technology convergence may be compelling, but it can be frustratingly difficult to deliver. Just scratch the surface of any organisation and its technology processes are likely to be anything but converged. Despite best intentions, language differences and organisational boundaries are still alive and well.
The need for greater convergence is undeniable
It was once easy to have a specific ICT discussion and have some clarity about where the boundaries lay. In decades past, a government manager might have proudly announced:
- “I'm not a technology person, I'm a data person.”
- “Technology is the easy bit, I'm working on the hard stuff.”
- “I'm a telecommunications person. I don't know anything about that IT stuff.”
However, times change, and these artificial boundaries no longer have much meaning. For example, the ubiquitous smartphone is no longer just a telecommunications device. Over time, the single-purpose mobile phone has evolved into a complex processing platform that now defies any of the traditional technology labels. Indeed, the entire value proposition of the smartphone is built on the notion of converged technologies. The simple, lightweight apps that now populate modern-day phones in large numbers gain most of their power by bringing together a variety of specialist technologies.
But this is just the beginning. Future converged services are likely to include holographic images, cognitive computing, and a variety of Internet of Things solutions. The sheer wizardry of these technologies deserves recognition; however, their real power comes from the outcomes they deliver to the user. In the real world of the 21st century enterprise, stand-alone solutions have very limited value. Convergence wins.
We must look to the past for clues to the future
There is an awkwardness that occurs every time discussion about convergence gets into any detail. The ICT industry is still built on a foundation of separate technologies. Each technology has its own language and methodologies, and a rich collection of enthusiastic subject-matter experts. Like it or not, the ICT industry continues to require a high degree of specialisation, and this specialist expertise needs to be valued and nurtured.
The technology industry is undergoing an internal transformation, with important similarities to the industrial revolution. Prior to the industrial revolution, products were individually produced by skilled artisans. These were the subject-matter experts of their time, each with a collection of their own language and processes unique to their particular trade. The industrial revolution did not end the need for tradespeople; however, it did completely transform that workforce and required that their skills be applied in different ways. These changes culminated in Henry Ford's assembly lines, where the focus moved to mass assembly based on common components and generic platforms.
Today, the need for skilled tradespeople remains, but the context has completely changed. Many of these trades are hardly recognisable when compared with their earlier counterparts.
Ecosystems and common platforms will be key drivers for future technology convergence
Today, the ICT industry is itself undergoing a similar change. Many of the current legacy systems have previously been developed with an artisan mentality. Business analysts would go to “the business” with a blank sheet of paper and ask for details of the organization's unique requirements. Bespoke systems would then be constructed to meet these particular requirements. Henry Ford would have been appalled at this inefficient use of skills and resources.
Henry Ford's real innovation was not in the way he designed his assembly lines, but his insights that there should be common solutions for common problems, and that very few problems are actually unique. Ford instead focused on a converged world, and that converged world needed new language and processes.
Today, convergence is not about being an expert at everything. Successful enterprises need to restructure themselves to become part of an ecosystem in which each participant is an expert at something. The technological strength of a company needs to be measured by the strength of its ecosystem, not just by its own internal development capacity. The days of monolithic technology are fading, just as they did for the trade artisans of the past.
Article by Kevin Noonan, Ovum research director