John  W. Thompson

The unintended consequences of IT transformations

June 05, 2013 1:04 PM EDT

Momentous, earth-shattering changes in IT have proven to be a divisive factor for many companies. Over the past four decades, these moments of change, or inflection points, have turned the industry on its head and sent us collectively diving into the future. Historically, every transition has significantly expanded the base of new users, made many more applications available and introduced a level of chaotic invention not seen before. Through each of these inflection points, we have witnessed obvious benefits, particularly in user productivity. 

But, these new opportunities also carry with them significant, unintended consequences.

IT Industry Inflection Points

Having worked in technology for as long as I have, you develop a perspective on the natural shifts and changes within the industry. In addition to the natural ebb and flow of a healthy market, it's the moments of change that set the tone and cadence for any industry. These are some of the most revolutionary inflection points in IT over the past few decades and their unintended, but powerful, consequences.

  • Mainframe to PC The shift to the PC democratized computing in companies around the world.  PCs were like dandelions -- they were popping up everywhere across an organization.  The advent of the PC also accelerated the pace of application development and significantly expanded the base of users of information technology. In many companies, the cost of a PC didn't require corporate approval and they flew under the radar of IT. Until one day both IT and finance leaders awaken to the notion that spending had reach phenomenal levels and they had lost control of the company assets.  The unintended consequence of the shift to the PC was the emergence and rapid growth of the asset management software category which allowed companies to better track spending and usage.
  • PC to Client-Server. After many large enterprises had adopted PCs, they realized the power of the technology could be amplified if they could share information more broadly.  Hence, connecting the individual islands of computing across the company. Harnessing the power of this information became the top priority as the industry began to shift from the PC to the modern-day server. The result was increased cross-department sharing of information. However, no one could have predicted the number of downstream consequences of taking a simple departmental server and opening it up more broadly. IT realized it needed to manage the infrastructure better and tackle things like access controls, file systems, and configuration and network management. Thus, the distributed systems management category was born.
  • Client-Server to Web-enablement. The Web era was truly revolutionary, opening global commerce and introducing a platform for organizations to interact with customers, partners and suppliers around the globe. No one lived the consequences of this transition more than I did, given my time at Symantec. Before the Web, mundane security problems, like viruses, were passed from machine to machine simply by moving the disk… Ironically, this physical transfer process limited the propagation of viruses. However, the Web changed all of that by allowing a virus to spread in seconds and creating a target for any individual or organization whose systems are connected. Perhaps no unintended consequence is more apparent now than the rapid growth of the security market. 
  • Web-enablement to Cloud. With a pace or frequency that's becoming more predictable, every eight to ten years our industry makes another important shift.  We're in the midst of one now as we transition to virtualized and cloud computing environments with mobile users driving broader demands than ever before.  Virtualization, which underpins all cloud infrastructures drives higher asset utilization allowing organization to derive greater value for their investments and improve the environmental impact of IT. Virtualization technology is designed to consume all excess capacity and get the best utilization out of physical assets. However, the age old technique of over-provisioning won't be the answer to unanticipated demands or performance challenges.  Hence, the challenge we face now is how best to deal with the demands for improved performance and availability of applications without the buffer of excess capacity we've become so accustom to.

Each one of the inflection points over the past 40 years has created unforeseen consequences and kick started markets that were either in their early stages or non-existent. No one anticipated the pace of PC adoption by large enterprises and the implications of this shift. We certainly underestimated the complexity introduced by client-server computing and its many devices and network connections.  And, no one could have ever imagined the degree to which security would become the Achilles heel of todays' computing infrastructure.  Cloud computing has the ability to drive more users to more locations with greater mobility than ever expected and, as a result, the consequences here could be far greater than with any other previous inflection point.

History can be a predictor of the future. While it's difficult to predict specifics, we can certainly extrapolate the likely consequences. Every inflection point or shift in the industry will result in a consequence that can't be avoided, but must be managed.  We must be thoughtful in mitigating these risk as we move forward and embrace the enormous benefits to society brought on by the incredible innovation across our industry.