The Possible Dream

IT leaders know what's possible, as well as what's for sale.

Is enterprise IT management becoming the realm of the contracts administrator rather than the technologist?

For the last several years, Ive been thinking IT looks more like corporate telecommunications management, with its focus on service relationships rather than product acquisitions and deployments. Now, however, Im having second thoughts: This may be a seriously incomplete perspective on the IT opportunities and challenges that still present themselves, despite the appeal of packaged service-based solutions.

When bandwidth becomes fast and cheap, there are clear economic incentives to do more things by assembling services built by others instead of by crafting custom applications. As soon as an IT function has been done correctly, anywhere, that functionality can be packaged and resold via standards-based protocols that go everywhere.—with its successful IPO performance last month—is at the very least an existence proof of IT migration from the task of buying and integrating products toward the purchase and coordination of services. Its Sforce application framework is becoming steadily more general in its capabilities.

Packaged functions can now find buyers quickly and inexpensively, almost as easily as people can enter keywords into a search engine. When I look at development tools such as Microsofts Visual Studio .Net or Oracles JDeveloper 10g, I see application developer environments that are just as much portals for shopping for services as they are workshops for writing new code.

IT as risk-averse service administration is a more predictable proposition than IT as a risk-seeking cycle of technology evaluation, adoption, experimentation and innovation. And predictability has powerful friends who often control key enterprise resources.

In the long run, though, it seems to me that impressive IT success comes more from the ability to create surprise than from the ability to prevent it.

When I think of people who demonstrate the power of surprise, one of the first who comes to mind is Steve Curcuru, one of the earliest members of the eWEEK Corporate Partner Advisory Board. As technology guru at a Boston TV station, he didnt just assemble the offerings of studio equipment providers; he took what were then new technologies, such as PCs and LANs, and made them the foundation of a leading-edge studio with robotically operated cameras and digital stock-footage libraries.

When commercial products based on the PC platform started coming to market, Curcuru didnt limit himself to comparing them with one another; he compared them against what he already knew could be done and demanded something at least as capable (but better packaged and easier to maintain). By knowing the technology at least one level deeper than it was being packaged in off-the-shelf products, he was able to be a much more aggressive buyer.

I see that same combination of leading-edge understanding, preparing the way for effective scrutiny of vendors subsequent offerings, at other Corporate Partner sites as well. At USA Today, eWEEK Corporate Partner Gary Gunnerson was developing online content management solutions in 1994. At the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, CP Robert Rosen has been addressing concerns about the imminent retirement of key personnel with new initiatives in knowledge capture.

The IT spending of people like these isnt just a matter of how much theyre allowed to spend; its driven by whether their needs are met more cost-effectively by packaged products than by their own ingenious homegrown solutions. They can wait for vendors to get it right.

Commodity PCs gave us low-cost building blocks on the hardware side; fast connections combined with Web services protocols are often said to be doing the same on the software side. When it comes to standardization and reusability, though, software has a long way to go before it matches the off-the-shelf utility we expect from hardware.

But even when that degree of service packaging is achieved, the best IT leaders wont stop rolling their own leading-edge solutions. Thats how they know whats possible, beyond just whats for sale.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

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