In his best seller "The World is Flat," Thomas Friedman writes (p. 46) about the "flattening of the world" as one of those disruptive, dislocating technological revolutions, like Gutenberg's printing press and the Industrial Revolution, that changes civilization in profound ways. But what is going on right now is qualitatively different, he proceeds to say, because of the speed and breadth with which it is taking hold.
I enjoyed reading Tom's book a lot, and not just because I so strongly agreed with his points. In recent talks I have been saying that we might be at the onset of a technology-enabled revolution that could have the impact on the 21st century that the Industrial Revolution had on previous generations. I struggled with what to call this 21st century revolution -- until a colleague pointed out that it is up to future historians to name such societal changes, once it is clearer what they were and what their impact was. In my talks, I have been using either Internet Revolution -- because I think that the explosion of the Internet in society around the mid '90s is what got things going in earnest -- or Business Process Revolution -- because, while the Internet and other technology advances have been the catalysts for change, the major transformations are taking place "up the stack" in businesses, industries, and whole economies. The overall net effect is to link people, processes and information everywhere, i.e., to essentially flatten the world.
There is general agreement that the Industrial Revolution was both enabled and significantly accelerated by advances in science and engineering. Steam power and machine tools of all kinds were largely responsible for the increases in productivity and standard of living that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. Artisans transformed themselves into professionals, practical thinking became more scientific, and university trained engineers were able to design solutions to increasingly complex problems.
Once more we need science and engineering to help us advance a revolution. But this time, they need to be applied to the labor intensive services that dominate our economies. Services now account for over 2/3 of the labor force in advanced countries like the US and the UK. And services represent an increasing portion of business revenues -- for instance, more than 50% of IBM's revenues now come from services.
With information technologies now playing the role of our steam power and machine tools, we need to evolve from today's rather labor-intensive and one-of-a-kind approaches to services to approaches that rely on sophisticated tools, disciplined processes, and standard components. We need more science and engineering in the design, building and deployment of the end-to-end business solutions we are after. Otherwise, their complexity and costs will be a major impediment to progress.
In IBM, we have started to use the framework of Services Sciences, Management and Engineering (SSME) to describe these emerging efforts, as well as to help create a true academic discipline around them. We are pursuing SSME activities across the company, from our R&D labs to our Global Services organization, as well as in our work with universities and other research institutions. We want to encourage lots of discussions around SSME such as how the discipline should evolve, its key priorities, curricula for students and practitioners, opportunities for collaboration, and so on.
Helping to organize SSME efforts both within IBM and working with universities around the world is one of my highest priorities. This 21st century revolution, no matter what you call it, will not happen, at least not in the positive way we envision it, unless the revolution is accompanied by the needed science and technology to help us solve the increasingly complex problems facing us, and design and build the needed sophisticated solutions. This is one of the toughest and most exciting challenges ahead of us all.