A new wave of technology can make and break companies, change the way business is done, re-order business ecosystems, and even sometimes change whole societies. The key for everyone, of course, is to anticipate the changes and exploit them.
According to Silicon Valley folklore, there is a simple way to find out what the next big revolution(s) in technology will be: watch what the early stage venture capitalists (VCs) are doing.
The theory only works to a point. It presupposes that VCs are able to see more clearly than the irrational, fad driven herd. The dot-com revolution has already shown that this is very often not the case. And, of course, VCs play a portfolio game. More often than not, they back companies, or technologies, that fail. VC behaviour, therefore, is just one indicator of the next wave.
There are others. First, look at the behaviour of the big companies who stand to lose, or gain, if a new technology catches on. A seriously disruptive technology – one that is widely adopted and, in the process, makes some companies and breaks others – can provoke some big strategic shifts and even some extreme reactions.
Second, a new technology is most likely to take root as part of a movement, with its evangelists active at both the technical level and the business school level. And third, it really needs to work – an obvious pre-condition but one that has often not been met.
Are there are any technologies out there that look as though they might be genuinely revolutionary? There are three obvious ones: wireless technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology. But none of these are new – they are just taking a long time to make their mark.
But there is one other and it does not yet have a name. It is part web services, part process management and, to a lesser extent, part grid computing. Together, they form a technology wave that has the potential to dramatically liberate all organisations from the copper-bound, code-bound, highly expensive and highly complex suit-of-chains that information technology has become.
These technologies – when they mature – could mean that organisations can dynamically find, develop or tap into the systems, services and the resources they need to support their business goals. They will be able to do this much more quickly, and – so the theory goes – more cheaply than before. It is – potentially – the advent of ‘plug and play' business.
None of this will be easy to build. It will certainly use web services, and the complex mix of standards, distributed technologies and re-engineering that this involves; it will certainly require a new generation of process management systems, which involve separating out the process and workflow of business from the actual coded functions themselves; and it may or may not involve computing-on-demand, either as a service or as a new kind of utility based architecture.
Is it really happening? The VC trail is clear to see. US companies active in this area, such as Bowstreet, Asera and Intalio, have received some of the largest venture capital investments ever given to pure play technology companies in the US.
In Europe, Cape Clear, West Global and others are pursuing either web services or process management technologies. Dozens of small companies have been formed.
The larger companies are also showing great interest: IBM, Microsoft, Software AG and SAP stand out as companies that are preparing for a different order, in which systems, services and ‘blocks of process' can be loosely coupled together, on an ad hoc basis. Iona, Tibco and Staffware are all beginning to talk about process backbones for plugging, and unplugging, web services and other processes. Some other software suppliers, however, are conspicuous by their guarded approach.
The movement for process-powered business agility may, of course, fail to deliver the revolution in IT or business that its proponents predict. And it may very well founder on cultural or organisation obstacles. It certainly won't happen quickly.
But the groundwork is being done, the investments are being made, the thinking is coherent from top to bottom. The biggest advances in IT over the past three decades have been in telecommunications and microelectronics. This time, it will be in software.