Not that long ago, many CIOs, and perhaps their direct reports, made the annual trek to trade shows like Comdex. Comdex was an important event, aimed at technologists who wanted to learn about what was coming so they could make informed strategic implementation decisions.
Comdex is just a lingering memory, and the most important show nowadays isn't really aimed at professional technologists at all. It's CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, which will take place this coming January. Should IT professionals pay it any mind? "Consumer" is in the name, after all. I think they should. If they don't attend, they should at least follow the proceedings closely. Why? Because this is the age of the connected consumer, and smart IT managers know the value of keeping track of what's happening in their world.
IT was once the sole arena of professionals. For the most part, end users weren't interested in technology itself, only in the efficiency it could produce. Users certainly weren't leading the charge as word processors replaced typewriters, spreadsheets replaced ledgers, and page layout and graphics programs replaced X-Acto knives and pasteboards. But along the way, users evolved, and the lines between business and consumer technologies blurred.
Today's business users tend not to make a distinction between business and personal technology. In fact, they have become the early adopters of technology, and more and more it is common for their personal technology to be superior to what they use at work. At home, they have become accustomed to doing tasks that were once the exclusive province of IT workers.
In middle-class homes today, you will likely find several networked PCs. The household's tech savvy members take on roles pretty much equivalent to CIO and help desk manager. Little Susie and Johnny might still be expected to make their beds and take out the rubbish, but they might also get chores like updating all the computers with the latest security patches.
That can be a positive development for IT departments, in that more users feel greater affinity with them. But as users become more technically adept, they sometimes expect a voice in selection and implementation decisions.
Of course, there's a huge gap between what end users want and what's appropriate for business use. End users have different priorities from IT. They want the latest and greatest, the coolest and flashiest. That's the sort of tech hunger that vendors can't ignore, and they have started to aim their technology marketing not at the IT pro but at the end user. The users in turn bring their new consumer-oriented devices to work and ask you to facilitate their use for business. If you say that's impossible -- it doesn't support Exchange, or its security features are weak, or it has no management utilities -- the smartest vendors start incorporating more of these features, which aren't really aimed at consumers but have the effect of making it harder for IT to say no to letting these consumer devices into the enterprise.
All this means that IT departments have a compelling reason to stay up on all sorts of technologies, even ones that they have no intention of supporting. Things are changing fast, and what you can't imagine supporting today will become routinely supported in the not-so-distant future. It's already happened with smartphones and netbooks, and there's no reason to think it won't happen again with iPads and other tablets. Consumers buy what they want, and then as business end users, they get what they want.
So, pay attention to CES and the consumer technology press. Bone up on the latest smartphones, touch technology, and even things you are 100 per cent certain you'll never have to support, like Slingboxes. Can you really guarantee that some road warrior isn't going to eventually win the argument that he deserves to be given the ability to watch his home television programming on his laptop as he travels?
Understanding end users and the technology that appeals to them has become a critical part of IT education. That even means allocating budget for the purchase and evaluation of some end-user devices. As the lines blur, that is the best way to identify the devices that you really have to say no to, and the only way you can show your users why the technology is inappropriate.