Understanding the tech duality

Technology can be thought of as one of two things with each being accurate and not distorting or compromising the other. That is a crucial link to the complexity of the relationship between business and technology.

The relationship between business and technology is complex and confusing for both executives and their IT peers. Much of the reason behind this has to do with the very nature of technology and how business makes sense of that nature.

Light has dual properties. It can be thought of as a particle and as a wave. Scientifically this is known as the wave-particle duality. Light can be explained as a particle – the photon – that acts like a think, bombarding other things, making pictures, giving force to interstellar winds. At the same time it can also be explained as a wave – the spectrum – that is the basis for microwaves, communications, and literally the colour in our world.

Technology shares a similar duality. It can be thought of as one of two things with each being accurate and not distorting or compromising the other. I believe this is part of the reason behind the complexity of the business and technology relationship.

Technology can be explained by business via two different models that are mutually exclusive but somehow co-exist. In that overlapping segregated space lays the generative power of new combinations of business and technology that are easy to over simplify but incredibly difficult to explain.

If scientists can explain light using both particle and wave theory, then how can business and technologies leaders explain their views and their theories behind technology?

Technology is a stock of things that act like particles. They are acquired, maintained, operated, consume resources. I think that is what we think about most often – the particles — when we think IT.

Technology is also a flow of things that act like waves. They move throughout the organization, drive information, communication, etc. This is perhaps the essence of digital technology and what distinguishes it from traditional IT.

You can’t explain one without the other, but each alone does not cover the observable reality of technology.

The wave-particle duality explains part of the quantum nature of light. Without trying to stretch the analogy too far, technology is also quantum in the sense that the observation of technology influences its state. See technology as a stock and you lose appreciation for its flows. Concentrate on its flow aspects and technology’s stock nature will come back and remind you of its presence.

You may have noticed that I keep talking about technology and not about IT. Increasingly I am coming to believe that technology trumps IT, not in the sense that technology is something new or emerging from IT as much as the emphasis between the two is shifting back toward technology waves that move through an organisation – the flow rather than IT particles that accumulate in an organisation – the stock.

The business wants the wave form of technology, active, low impact, dynamic — something that gives the operations, products and services a healthy glow from a good tan.  Alternatively IT organisations concentrate on the particle form of technology, the apps, data, communications, infrastructure, elements etc. The things that are complex, high impact, stable — things that add weight and reality to the cost of doing business. The problem is you cannot have one or the other, you need both, even if you are buying cloud services all you are doing is seeking the wave by outsourcing the particles.

So, something to think about and consider as we talk tech in the future — are we talking about the wave, the particle or both? 

Mark McDonald is a group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs

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