Signs of Intelligent Life on a Smarter Planet

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By now just about everybody has seen the commercial in one form or another. An IBM employee describes how they are working on one cool project or another, ranging from solving global warming to making the traffic run smoothly, thanks to the innovative use of IT.

For most of us, these Smarter Planet advertising campaigns speak to why we got into IT in first place. IT has a phenomenal potential to make a difference in terms of how we work and play. The only problem with the IBM campaigns is that they tend to create an expectation among average business people that IT, properly applied, can do almost anything.

Unfortunately, the reality of IT today is pretty far divorced from the vision of a Smarter Planet. No doubt we can get there someday, but right now enterprise IT is best characterized as managed chaos consisting of isolated applications running on temperamental systems that house data that is all too often of suspect quality.

So it's all well and fine to tell people that we should all be living on a smarter planet thanks to the wonders of IT, but it's quite another thing to tell people how to actually get there.

What's needed, of course, is a sound IT architecture that enables the sum of IT to be much greater than its parts. One of the foundational technologies of such an IT architecture is an enterprise service bus (ESB) or equivalent piece of software that allows any set data from any application to be dynamically integrated. But in order for an ESB to really work, the applications themselves have to be designed to provide data as a service. This requirement is what drives all the interest in service-oriented architecture (SOA) and Web services.

Unfortunately, IT architecture is only the beginning of the process. Next up, IT organizations need to compare and then organize all the data about any given transaction or customer that can reside in hundreds of applications. First the data has to be cleaned up to make sure none of it is redundant, and then the business has to decide which applications actually represent the real truth about the state of any given process. That may sound easy, but in reality there are mountains of redundant data residing in applications that nobody in the business want to give up control. Just think how often you have been in a meeting where the finance department is working with one set of numbers, while the sales department has a completely different set of numbers derived from their internal spreadsheets and customer relationship management (CRM) software.

Finally, once you get in IT house in order you can then think about applying business intelligence tools such as predictive analytics to a reliable representation of a business process. This is precisely why IBM recently moved to acquire SPSS. We have reached a point in our IT evolution where if the data is reliable, we can actually make some predictions about the state of the business and the needs of the customer. When business people hear IBM executives talk about life on a Smarter Planet, it is this predictive capability that they think they are going to get.


Unfairly, this places a set of expectations on IT departments that 90 percent or more of them can't live up to. IBM and others are coming up with processes to help IT organizations get there, but this transformation requires a multi-year journey. Alas, business executives all too often think this transformation is something more akin to a miraculous event.

So the question is how much of your daily reality is spent on trying to make your organization smarter, versus just trying to hold your organization together?