You Say You Want a Revolution…

Remember the heady days circa 1999? We thought we were reinventing business, forming a New Economy, revolutionizing the essential nature of commerce. In our dreams! By late 2001 the bubble had burst, and what we thought was a new paradigm for business—the World Wide Web—turned out to be little more than a new marketing channel.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not trying to disparage the power and importance of the Web. After all, the Web, and the Internet in general, have deeply affected so many aspects of business today. It’s hard to remember the time when you had to talk to a teller to use a bank or a stockbroker to trade stocks! But we were wrong that the Web was a revolution. It wasn’t a paradigm shift. Fundamentally, the rise of the Internet was more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Not wanting to succumb to this delusion again, ZapThink has long held that the rise of SOA was also more evolutionary than revolutionary. We point to many SOA best practices, including abstracted interfaces, encapsulation, loose coupling, and iterative approaches to dealing with changing requirements, among others—all practices that were already well-known and favored before SOA came along. SOA  moved the ball forward, to be sure, but didn’t fundamentally change the way we tackled distributed computing. It wasn’t a true paradigm shift, because we didn’t have to throw out old ways of thinking and replace them with new ways. Instead, we leveraged the existing approaches while tweaking and improving them.

Today, however, ZapThink is willing to go out on a limb and proclaim that we now have a true revolution on our hands. A true paradigm shift in the world of IT is afoot, one that is already forcing us to discard old ways of doing things, in favor of new approaches, new technologies, and new ways of thinking. Yes, we’re talking about ZapThink’s vision for Enterprise IT in 2020 with its five Supertrends and multiple Crisis Points. We’ve already laid out the context for the turbulence that is already underway and yet to come. But we haven’t explained why we’re calling this period in time a revolution. Why does this decade herald a true revolutionary change, when even the period (aka “Web 1.0”) of 1994-2001 didn’t qualify?

The Context for Revolutionary Change

The most familiar revolutions, of course, are political—the American Revolution, the French Revolution, etc. The author most responsible for extending this definition beyond the political sphere was Thomas Kuhn, whose 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions discussed the nature of revolutions such as the Copernican Revolution or the one leading to the Atomic Theory of Matter. Such revolutions in the process and theory of science represented periods of dramatic change, requiring intellectuals of the day to discard old ways of thinking and replace them with new ones—often over the course of a generation, as the old guard eventually died off. Kuhn also coined the term paradigm shift to refer to such upheaval in ways of thinking. (Yes, if you ever wondered where the notion of paradigm shifts came from, it was Thomas Kuhn who came up with the whole idea).

Kuhn’s book was so influential that his notions of revolutions and paradigm shifts expanded well past the realm of the history of science into virtually any area of human endeavor. His insights, after all, applied to fundamental aspects of human thought and behavior: human endeavors don’t progress evenly and gradually, but rather in fits and starts, and occasionally there’s a large upheaval that resets the playing field. But not every change represents a paradigm shift, and not every trend is revolutionary.

Revolution vs. Evolution

How then do we know we’re truly in a revolution, and not simply another period of evolution like the or SOA eras? Kuhn points out that, well, it’s harder than it sounds. People often don’t recognize that a revolution has taken place until well after the fact. It’s not like one day somebody wakes up and realizes that the way they were doing things is suddenly obsolete. In fact, the pre-revolutionary patterns often persist well into the revolutionary period, even though in retrospect it becomes clear their days were numbered.

Another reason why revolutions are hard to identify while in the midst of them is that the changes are numerous, often sporadic, and typically subtle. When Galileo turned his telescope toward the moons of Jupiter, it’s not clear that he realized he was helping to change an entire civilization’s world view. When the Catholic Church forced him to recant his discoveries, I’m sure the church authorities had no idea they were fighting a losing battle. Only in retrospect can we place these events into the proper context of the Copernican Revolution.

A third impediment to identifying a revolution in progress is the clichéd nature of the terms revolutionary and paradigm shift. It seems that every technology startup these days touts their new widgets as being revolutionary paradigm shifts. Hell, it seems that every minor improvement in laundry detergent or automobile oil is revolutionary. It’s no wonder we’ve become jaded about the entire subject. If the marketeers tout every minor improvement as revolutionary then nothing is revolutionary.

That is, until a real revolution comes along.

Why ZapThink 2020 Signals a Revolution

If we only spotted one trend (like SOA) or one disruptive change (e.g., the Web replacing tellers and stockbrokers), then we might have a hint of a revolution, but more likely than not, we’d be wrong to apply the term. However, there are simply too many different forces of change impacting IT today, and in turn, impacting business in general to consider such changes to be an evolutionary trend. We have Cloud Computing, mobile computing, the threat of Cyberwarfare, the rise of social media, the app store model for purchasing software, outsourcing, insourcing, complex systems engineering…the list goes on and on. Any of these trends taken separately may be considered evolutionary, but put them together and there are strong hints of a paradigm shift in progress.

The second aspect of ZapThink 2020 that indicates a revolution in progress is the potentially disruptive nature of the Crisis Points. While the Stuxnet worm may have only disrupted Iranian power plants, the next professionally designed cyberattack promises much greater disruption. And while buying enterprise-class apps via your phone is novel, it has yet to put one of the big enterprise app vendors out of business. So, we won’t really know just how disruptive this paradigm shift will be until after the fact.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of an ongoing revolution is the evolving perspective on change, and the role technology has in supporting it. People are simply getting fed up with inflexible technology. We’re sick and tired of legacy that slows down our organizations and sucks up our budgets. The need for greater agility drove the move to SOA, but SOA alone doesn’t solve our inflexibility problems, in large part because SOA is part of the old paradigm. What we need is a new paradigm for architecture-driven agility that is inherently different than today’s architectural approaches. It’s the fact that we’re already seeing the shift to this new paradigm that is the primary reason we’re calling this point in time a revolution.

The ZapThink Take

The most challenging aspect of identifying a revolution is that it’s extraordinarily difficult to do so while it’s still in progress. We understand this challenge, and realize that we may be wrong about the whole affair. After all, there are still so many unanswered questions. For example, in 20 years when we look back on this time, what will we call the revolution? We can guess, but there’s no way to know what the next big thing will be until it’s finally here.

Perhaps we can look back at the last revolution for inspiration—the postwar Information Revolution that heralded the Information Age. Starting with Colossus cracking the Nazi’s Enigma codes at Bletchley Park, through the rise of digital, programmable computers to the networked world we have today, no one can disagree that the rise of computing disrupted the pre-computer ways of thinking and conducting business, leading to an entirely new context for human endeavor writ large. But no single innovation, no single disruption signaled the revolution. Only in retrospect can we take all the disruptions together and recognize a true paradigm shift.

We’re the first to admit, therefore, that we may be completely wrong about what we call the Agile Architecture Revolution. And we may not know how right we were for another twenty years. But we can say that rethinking how we approach agility will be a critical enabler for organizations over the next ten years and beyond. Whether agile architecture heralds a revolution may be too hard to say with any certainty, but agile architecture is undoubtedly here to stay.