A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, IT as we know it didn't exist. I'm talking of course about the 1980s, when what we call IT was generally called MIS (management of information services). MIS was about automating back-office functions such as accounting and payroll. It was mostly based on mainframes, and MIS professionals were largely programmers, whose unique skill was the ability to design effectively at scale -- that is, write multi-thousand-line software programs. And the primary users of MIS were discrete business groups, not rank-and-file employees.

Enter IT. In the 1980s and early 1990s, two disruptive technologies emerged: the PC and the network. The benefit of these technologies was the ability to exchange and distribute information in real time, and the user base expanded from payroll and accounting to pretty much any office employee. And the key discipline shifted from the ability to write gigantic, well-organized programs to being able to interconnect disparate and heterogeneous systems.

The end result? MIS went away, and IT took its place. Although companies still employ application developers, many of the large, scalable applications are now delivered by third-party providers such as SAP and Oracle -- and increasingly today, in the form of software-as-a-service.

Get ready, folks: Things are about to change yet again. IT is morphing into "enterprise technology." And just as IT represented the expansion of technology from the old "glass house" of MIS to a broader group of office workers, ET represents an expansion of technology beyond office workers to every employee -- and more importantly, every device and system -- in an organization, even those who don't historically work with computers and phones.

The core benefit of ET is the ability to correlate vast amounts of information in real time -- and to actively control the physical world based on that information. Because ET is intimately connected with the physical world, its core architecture can best be described as "embedded."

An indicator: AT&T recently shifted its accounting to specifically include revenue generated from "connected devices" (machine-to-machine, including Amazon Kindles and heathcare monitors).

As with the shift from MIS to IT, the shift from IT to ET is disruptive. The old skills -- in this case, the ability to interconnect heterogenous devices and systems -- are becoming less strategic, just as the ability to write gigantic software packages became less important during the shift from MIS to IT. Instead, the emphasis is shifting to technologies that extend and integrate with the physical world. Some characteristics of these enterprise technologies:

  • They involve some element of integration with the physical world. Examples: sensor networks, display technologies, smart grids, wireless monitoring devices.

  • They are real-time.

  • They involve large to very large amounts of data (Example: business intelligence).

  • They can often be used to control, not just monitor, the physical environment (Examples: power control networks, telerobotics)

  • They are intrinsic to an organisation's business.

The fundamental challenge facing today's IT leaders, therefore, lies in embracing and making the most of both worlds: strategic ET and legacy (commoditizing) IT. Want to learn more? Stay tuned.