Democratization of technology will bring drastic changes to governance, operations, and IT skillsets, writes Frank Petersmark.

Technology and IT used to be special. In the days before personal computers, networks, the internet, and now smartphones and other such devices, technology was difficult to create, understand and use. Information technology departments (or data processing, information systems, etc.) were created by organizations because a special kind of knowledge and experience was required to make technology work. I know this because I used to be one of those people.

Over the decades that has all changed – mostly for the better – to the point where, today, technology has become normalized, mainstream, even democratized (an oft overused and misunderstood term). But what does the democratization of technology really mean, and what are its implications?

Democracy is a political term used to describe a system of governance containing key elements with which most are familiar, from high school or college civics classes: A political system for choosing and replacing governments through free elections; the participation of citizens in politics and civil life; a rule of law that applies equally and impartially to all citizens, etc. In the context of the evolution of technology, democratization refers to the notion of self-governance – that people have the power and authority to govern their own affairs individually and collectively. That’s a watershed change for this next phase of The Information Age with far reaching consequences for governments, companies, and individuals.

IT Governance Shift

Gartner and McKinsey have placed the democratization of technology on their lists of top technology trends and challenges over the next decade. Their short definition of democratization is providing anybody and everybody with easy access to technology and business expertise without extensive (or even any) training. What’s most interesting about this is that the broader use of technology in everyday business and life will no longer require specialists.

To respond to this, organizations and companies will be required to develop new governance models for creating and managing technology platforms. Top-down governance will no longer work in an age when technologies can be created, distributed, and mainstreamed with the use of simple-to-use artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and sophisticated data tools that are completely outside of any sort of traditional governance structures.

Rather, governance models will shift conceptually from barricades, where things are not allowed, to guardrails, where things are allowed but constrained to protect information integrity and security. That shift will require a reorientation of how governance has been positioned in board rooms and executive suites, as the conversation moves from prevention and protection to enablement and productivity. C-level executives will share technology responsibilities – from development to deployment to management – more equitably across the enterprise. Accountability for the productive use of technology investments and processes will become the shared domain of the broader C-suite rather than falling exclusively on the shoulders of CIOs and CTOs.


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New Modes of Operation

Likewise, business operating models will have to adjust to these new “citizen technologists.” Early adopters have already emerged. For example, Uber and AirBnB both created models that enabled people to be in the taxi and home rental business without either Uber or AirBnb having to own the means of their revenue streams (automobiles and real estate). Rather, they provided the technological means that allowed citizen technologists to run their own business affairs. Similarly, Amazon created a model that has made them the largest company in the world by creating the technological platform that enables people to become both retailer and consumer of goods that Amazon does not have to ever own.

These and many other emerging operating models are instructive for vetting what will and will not work in this continuing democratization of technology. One thing that all the successful models have in common is that they put the power of complex technologies into a simple and usable platform or package (think smartphones) that people can leverage for some personal, professional, or common benefit.

Additionally, one of the byproducts of this trend will be the democratization of not just complex technologies, but the information that’s created from it. That’s not the case today with the “consumer-data-leveraged-for-profit” business models that Google, Facebook, Instagram, etc. employ, but that will begin to change as technology democratization spreads to the point where even these biggest of tech companies will need to adjust.

Meet the New Specialist

Traditional definitions of skill sets will evolve as well. Today’s technical specialists will become tomorrow’s technical generalists: those that help to build and cultivate technology communities that enable technology democratization in public, private, and commercial spheres. This shift will change how technology skills are valued in the marketplace. Old school specialists (like me), whose focus is narrow and specific, will be replaced by generalists focused less on technical manuals and more on people, processes, and positive outcomes. The value that organizations place on these skill sets – and the compensation required to hire and retain the skill sets – will evolve as well.

As history will attest, democratizing anything comes with challenges. Democracy in its political form is a continuing experiment, as recent events so vividly demonstrate. Likewise, democracy in a technological context is an experiment that will not come to fruition without its challenges. It will be risky, messy, disruptive, innovative, and, at least in the short term, will create clear winners and losers. And based on the current trend lines, it also seems inevitable. Future-focused organizations will recognize this and begin to evolve their operating models and workforces accordingly. Those who don’t may find themselves on the wrong side of these new citizen technologists.

Democratization of technology

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