According to The Economist we are currently undergoing a 'Cambrian moment'. This is in reference to the point some 540 million years ago when life started to multiply and become much more varied. Back then it was about species - now it is about start-ups. This is about far more than just the birth of a raft of new businesses though. The change we are currently going through is, if you like, about a technology led revolution. Software, like the church, used to be the preserve of an elite. If you wanted to receive its blessings you had to pay for it. Ordinary folks couldn't access its wonders directly - you needed someone to do it for you. Not anymore.
So why now? Essentially it is the creation of digital building blocks, the coming together of internet connectivity and maturing cloud platforms which in turn enables universal access to development stacks, open source platforms and a whole array of start-up software and services that mean faster, easier app development. Add to this a whole community updating, revising and improving the software and you have an entire open ecosystem of developers at your disposal.
For those of us who have been in the industry as long as I have there are two ways of looking at this. Either it's a threat or it's an opportunity. For some perhaps it's both. There is no doubt that either way inaction or ignoring it as a fad just isn't an option. If you are a big enterprise software provider then, as I discussed in my previous article, you are either going to evolve or die. The chances of the next generation of technology decision maker being up for spending millions on a bunch of systems and support agreements that will require time, energy and manpower to run and will be out of date before you have finished rolling them out is slim to none. Likewise, adopting an Emperor's new clothes approach and trying to rebadge old tech as 'virtual' or 'cloud' is unlikely to fool many for long. Buying up as many smart ideas as you can as quickly as you can (check out this graphic to see how some of the biggest are keeping up with the Jonses) will only work for a little while, especially if you are focusing on the ideas themselves rather than the thinking behind them.
What is fascinating about this - and in my eyes incredibly exciting - is what this commoditisation of technology platforms offers in terms of opportunities for organisations that have, up until this point, been reliant on the Church of Enterprise Software. As the Economist points out, what we now have is a digital platform that opens the opportunity to innovate up to everyone. Connectivity, security, reliability (issues that have perhaps been barriers to access) if not totally solved, are very close to being solved. There has been a noticeable reduction in the chatter around these issues because fundamentally, they aren't really issues any more.
As I talked about in my previous article some companies, with Cisco being the most significant example, are very much aware of the opportunity the digital platform provides and the pressing need to adapt in order to put the platform (and the data it enables) at the heart of the business - rather than the applications that sit on top of it. What perhaps is less understood at the moment is the opportunity it delivers to those companies who traditionally have been technology buyers rather than vendors.
The opportunity, in a nutshell, is this. Organisations now have the ability, and the opportunity, to explore new ideas (of all kinds) quickly, cheaply and without technical constraint. Rather than being constrained by what technology can do, organisations are now empowered by it. The Cambrian moment we are currently experiencing is as much about a huge shift in our approach to technology as it is about the ideas coming out of it.
Until this point I would venture that for most people technology was something to be scared of. It was something big and complex; something all organisations needed but many resented. It was seen as a cost, a necessary investment that at best helped things run smoothly, at worst could cause catastrophic losses and even drive companies out of business. Over the last few years we have seen a gradual shift. The more progressive and visionary within the CIO community have realised they have an opportunity to architect major changes and to become a catalyst for innovation and growth rather than simply a cost centre. Now we are at a tipping point. A new generation that has grown up understanding the power of the digital platform is coming of age. Already we are seeing these people taking the reins - creating a raft of new companies that have the digital platform at their heart.
So for us old boys, who risk being left behind, the choice is to embrace this opportunity, embrace the digital platform and look to make the most of the opportunities it presents or to watch the companies we work for, and with, being eclipsed by a generation who is genuinely empowered by the opportunity this platform presents. It isn't just a question of embracing start-ups as technology providers, its about bringing their way of thinking, the software, tools and platforms they use in to the business and really understanding what it is that this brave new world can really deliver.