It may sound blasphemous to many. But the more I think about it, the more I get uncomfortable with the phrase information technology. The fact that it has taken me more than two decades (that is from my first year engineering to now) to muster up enough courage to put it straight should not be held against the argument that I am making. And that is: information technology—for all its seemingly magical prowess and overwhelming impact on our lives—is a misnomer. Technology, it is; information technology, it is not.
One can go back to the classical distinction between “information” and “data” to appreciate what I am saying. As any student is taught when he is introduced to computers, data (actually the plural of datum) is pieces of facts. When, it is processed, organized, structured and interpreted, so that it becomes meaningful, it is called information. Today’s technology does a great job of processing, organizing, and structuring data. But interpreting to make it meaningful? Despite all the craze about BI and analytics of late, technology still lacks the ability to add the value of context and hence interpret it meaningfully. So, while sometimes based on matching strings of alphabets and mapping that to a predefined “meaning”, it tries to present the result as meaningful interpretation, we all know that it is not. Much of the current buzzwords such as analytics and BI are examples of this kind of exprimentation. That is clearly not “understanding the context.”
However, very recently, context has generated a lot of interest among the businesses, thanks to the surging popularity of social media, that is generating huge amount of content, much of which is available publicly.
While scores of boutique social media tracking firms have mushroomed and have been helping consumer companies “understand” the customers thinking, they too are working with basic technology that relies on the above mentioned technique. But that itself is a great leap and marketers are lapping that up. Interestingly, in most businesses, they have been working with the marketing and customer service teams, with little or no interaction with the enterprise IT departments.
I am not sure if and when the twain will meet. That anyway is not of too much consequence to this discussion. I return to my basic point that information technology really is not.
But I must point out that it was not really this way always. One of the major areas of interest within theoretical computer science in the 70s and 80s—and to some extent in early 90s—was artificial intelligence. Artificial Intelligence actually wanted to cross this frontier by trying to make computer systems intelligent enough to “understand” natural language, learn by experience and so on. So hot was the area that between 1969 and 1994, it won four Turing awards, arguably the biggest recognition in computer science. In my college days (late 80s-early 90s), AI was the buzzword and we were completely enticed by it, so much so that I remember having fought with my professor for not allowing us to opt for AI as an elective in the final year—citing lack of teachers as the reason—and forcing on us “computer networks”!
While AI still continues in some high-end labs, it faded from mainstream focus of technology industry in the mid 90s, often facing criticism, among others, that it was too philosophical a concept. And this is also when, I would like to argue, information technology lost its way.
It fell to the temptation of impressing the businesses with immediate, tangible results by automating a lot of business processes. It was a Godsend for businesses—American primarily but Western European and Japanese to some extent—that were already witnessing sluggish growth and were badly in need for something that would boost bottomline by cutting cost. The technology—what we call IT today—could do that fairly well and businesses started seeing it as the next big value creator. Soon the entire focus of technology shifted to creating newer ways and means of enhancing business efficiency. ERP and outsourcing were two major milestones in that journey. All of it was internal focused.
These low hanging fruits made the technology industry almost abandon areas that requires longer term commitment (such as AI), and technology reached where it is today. Information technology was happy playing the role of automation technology and data technology. And that is what it absolutely became.
However, what makes me hopeful are two developments. One, the Internet has emerged as a big social platform and there is an opportunity to really understand the customer. Businesses would have to now differentiate themselves on this plane, as efficiency has been done to death. Two, and this is equally important, emerging economies are now becoming the focus of most large global corporations. In these new markets—often with very different social and economic structures than the West—reaching out and reaching out effectively through whatever means possible would become key. Topline will again drive businesses and that would require knowledge of customer as a differentiator. Some businesses have already seen the danger of trying to do business in the new markets with business models of the mature markets!
Whether that will result in a serious effort by technology fraternity to make the customer instead of internal processes their core focus is something that remains to be seen.