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IT Trends: What's next for midsize companies

There is no lack of innovation in technology, but which innovations can really deliver a competitive advantage to midsize businesses? Christopher Perrien, a technical business development manager at IBM's Software group, is focused on asking that question as he explores internet technologies to determine which specific ones make the most sense for IBM's clients. In this interview, he identifies some unexpected options.

ForwardView: Technology pundits have predicted many tech trends for 2011 and 2012 related to the internet. Which three do you think are most relevant for midsize companies, and why?

Perrien: I think people don't adopt technology in a straight line. We see something, get used to it, see something, get used to it, whereas technology changes in almost a straight line. So I think the point we're at now is that midsized firms are adopting trends that have been around 2 or 3 years – specifically, the incredible, interesting explosion of devices. Smart phones have become more prominent, and now we have tablets. I think enterprises of all sizes believe that there is something to this notion of social networks, social business, and enterprises of all sizes are trying to determine which tools make the most sense to them. All of this [social] activity creates an awful lot of data, and now we have some tools and techniques that help us to analyze the types and volumes of data that we've been collecting in near real-time. So in summary I'd say, on the device-side, it's tablets, on the relationship side there's something to business/social for the midsize enterprise, and there are definitely evolving capabilities to better connect with customers to improve data analysis.

ForwardView: Do you think that tablets are really poised to change the way we work? Do they deliver on the hype?

Perrien: I think so. I do think Steve Jobs is correct in saying that we're evolving to a post-PC generation. I think tablets offer convenience. I see lots of executives preferring to use the form-factor of a tablet versus the somewhat bulky PC. PCs are wonderful if you have to create, but if you're just accessing information, I believe the form factor of the tablet truly is more appropriate for mobile people like executives and salespeople. On the consumer side, I see lots of people using tablets because it doesn't require that they hold their smart phone at arm's length to read what's on the screen. So I think people tend to see tablets as large smart phones. But my sense or prediction is, over the next 2 or 3 years, tablet computing really will change the notion of training and education.

ForwardView: The second thing that you mentioned was social networking and social business. How does social business relate to the midsize company?

Perrien: I think the days of someone in the organization owning the message—whether it's marketing communications, or public relations, or the sales department even -- those days are waning. I think the midsized advantage now is that midsized companies can better integrate the messaging of the firm, both internally and externally, and almost turn employees into brand ambassadors. So I think for sure it improves internal collaboration when the tools are permitted to employees. They can also improve external communication. Some firms, legitimately so, wonder if we permit people carte blanche access to all these tools, are there productivity increases or losses or is it neutral? But they're just tools. The midsize enterprise has to be clear about what's the purpose of these tools and ask, what are we trying to accomplish? But I do think it will improve access to data, internal collaboration, and certainly external communications with distributors and customers.

ForwardView: Your third point had to do with data. We are generating about 15 petabytes of data every day. So the question is, how is technology helping midsize companies use this information, and how is it helping to make the planet smarter?

Perrien: How much information is in that data—that's the trick, right? How can I use contemporary data analytics to compare historical information about clients and markets? How can I use access to social sentiment, and compare what I know about people to what I observe them saying and doing every day in real time? If we can compare what we see now to trends we're confident in, it enables us to make decisions in real time to take advantage of circumstance. To me, that leads to a smarter planet.

ForwardView: Do you think that there's an intimidation factor just in the phrase “data analytics” or “predictive analytics” that puts midsize businesses execs off from trying these tools out?

Perrien: The short answer is yes. The challenge to analyzing data is that the quality of the output is only as good as the questions we ask. And asking an intelligent question requires some sense of the answer. But I feel that there are opportunities for the midsize enterprise to iterate this data. These don't have to be massive, long-term projects to derive information. We can continuously query our customer base, and in an iterative matter build our knowledge around customers and marketplaces. So the cost benefit is there.

ForwardView: Let's return to the device area for a moment. Do you think there are ways that businesses can exploit the GPS capabilities that pinpoint the location of these devices for business purposes?

Perrien: I think that's only bounded by our imagination. Certain generations – under 30, under 40, pick a number – are proud of telling people, this is where I am , and very comfortable with popular apps like FourSquare or AroundMe. On the enterprise side, senior executives are not so used to this notion of constant location awareness. But the opportunity to target services, target support, just based upon where a customer is, an employee is, a piece of equipment is—the cost savings could be beneficial to both parties.

ForwardView: Let's look just a little further out and maybe get a little futuristic. What's coming up in the way of devices? We've heard about everything from headband computers to flexible screens you can fold up.

Perrien: I think the future is a lot more iterative than we want to believe. People do not want too much inconvenience with their technology. Do they want to wear 3D glasses for the benefit of 3D TV? I'm not so sure. What I see moving forward is gaming. I've observed the gaming experience my teenagers have. It's like being in their own movie, and they've even told me, if only school were this interesting, it would make a big difference. So I think the notion of ubiquitous video, the whole notion of an immersive environment where people can learn and train and communicate, is one idea. Two, I'd go back to the notion of tablets. Tablets are readers to some people, but I perceive tablets as being more control units. You walk into a conference room, and you'll be able to project your presentation from your tablet to the large monitor in the corner. The tablet will also be the equivalent of your ATM kiosk. It will be a key for starting your car. It'll control the heating and air conditioning and entertainment in your house. So I think the idea that we're carrying around a device that enables us to transact business and communicate in multiple ways is an idea we really haven't thought about so far.

ForwardView: Do you anticipate infrastructure changes to enable this sort of universal control device to work?

Perrien: That's a really good question. Bandwidth will be constrained until we've built something new. I think an advantage to an enterprise is to what extent can I outfit my facilities and my staff on a much smaller scale to take advantage of these devices, as they become more ubiquitous. It takes me back to the days of virtual private networks. As the big systems are built out over 10 years, how can I get a running start on a smaller scale within my own enterprise, in my own community of distributors and suppliers?

ForwardView: On the subject of infrastructure, let's talk about cloud computing. What do you think is driving the widespread adoption that's taking place now?

Perrien: The reason that cloud computing will continue to be taken up not just by enterprises, but by individuals, is that we all have so many devices—a phone, a PC, a tablet—and keeping these things synchronized is very difficult. But cloud enables each device to contain the same amount, the same type, quality, and caliber of information in real time. And it addresses the issue of version control and multiple copies of the same document, which is a terrible waste of storage space. What we want is a lower cost for a computing device, and cost per computing hour or computing second will be lower with the cloud. We'll be dealing from the same database, and not fight this notion of who has the latest version. It won't matter if I'm on a smart phone or a desktop or on a tablet. We're basically going back to streamlining those who know and putting them directly in touch with those who need to know.

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