Amongst the pressures that Diane mentioned was the increasing push of consumer IT. I guess this takes many forms – computing needs to be simpler, but also there are more ways for the office to reach us (Blackberries etc.). This particular point made me think of a book that I’ve just started reading thanks to a recommendation from Kim on her recent trip to Hursley – Everyware by Adam Greenfield. I may write a fuller entry on this subject in time, but the basic premise here is about the emergence of pervasive devices, the increasing irrelevance of the PC, and the release of information. Will the IT industry continue to be relevant? One view might be that bigger brains and more organisation and effort is required on the pure IT side to keep this stuff business-oriented, while another might be that as the trend continues, IT people will melt into business roles more easily. It was just an interesting connection that jumped to mind.
One of the concepts that was mentioned was the idea of the difference between a Specialist, a Generalist, and the more in-demand individual somewhere in the middle – the Versatilist. Diane came up with this idea, and it was later adopted by Thomas Friedman in The World Is Flat (which I really, really must read now). This is a multidisciplinary expert who is not shallow in lots of areas like a generalist, but deep skill in a variety of areas backed up with expertise in a number of roles. Although these individuals should be in demand, my view is that often businesses are looking for the deep skill and concentration in a particular area. Therefore, they struggle to either create jobs that enable them to fulfil the variety of roles that they could flourish in; or have no means of recognising the contributions of versatilists across a range of areas once they are in a particular business.
(incidentally, yesterday I had a conversation with someone who had been at the same talk on Thursday and failed to see the difference between a generalist and a versatilist – it was obvious to me, but maybe some people didn’t get it)
Social computing felt like something of an addendum in the talk, which was a shame. One of the core points (in my opinion) was that collaborative working and building a strong network across both business and IT is key to building a strong versatilist. Social computing and the software that supports it – blogs, wikis and so forth – can be key to empowering the workforce. I know that my ability to work collaboratively across IBM has been transformed by our internal blogging network, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m such a strong advocate of software like Lotus Connections. During the break I mentioned to Diane just how powerful a transformation blogging has had on my ability to work across the organisation. In the talk she’d said that a versatilist has a very strong web that has been built across an organisation, and that connections and communities are crucial – I agree – and social networking is front and centre of the trend to build those communities – and the youngsters getting started with MySpace today are going to expect similar tools within the enterprise when they get there. Diane mentioned communities of practice and communities of interest being key ways of building connections, and we have those at IBM – but in reality I think even stronger connections and contacts can be built out even wider, as well as those that form within a relatively small pool of like-minded people represented by a community of interest.
There was also a comment about businesses treating information as a competitive asset – again it made me think of Connections – “making sense of unstructured data to support people” – well there was another link to blogs, wikis, XML and RSS. Diane also made the statement that “we are dealing with top-down information”, which made me wonder, should we be? Are we really? Another book that urgently needs to go on my reading list is Wikinomics.
Finally, given our current focus on virtual worlds, I wondered how business in virtual worlds would impact the ability to manage a career in the context of the pressures that Diane was mentioning. What is the impact of “virtual business” on careers in the IT industry?
I still haven’t exhausted my notes here, but I realise that a lot of what I’ve typed is disconnected from the context of the original talk, so it is getting increasingly fragmentary – I’ll stop at this point.
It was great to be able to talk to Diane briefly over lunch to discuss a few of the points I’d thought of – there were more that I didn’t have a chance to cover. Overall I think there are some really intriguing things going on in the industry and in society in general. It was good to have Diane along for the day and to hear her views.