Editorial: November 2001

In November 1951, when the inventors of the Lyons Electronic Office, or LEO, turned their machine on, they couldn’t possibly have imagined how far the IT industry would travel between then and now. After all, our 20-gigabyte hard drives are a far cry from the mercury delay line memories used by LEO. As archaic as the technology itself now seems, however, the innovative spirit that drove J. Lyons & Co., a British chain of tea shops, to build and benefit from LEO lives on in many of our best companies.

Consider, notes Brian Hayes in his retelling of the tale of LEO, the company’s ability to put its newfound power to good business use (see “The First Fifty Years“). The machine was used, of course, to automate simple data-processing tasks. But Lyons also asked it to analyze daily sales data, creating a management information tool that streamlined the process of predicting demand and maintaining inventory.

In a real sense, what Lyons accomplished was the successful alignment of its IT department and the business processes that came to depend on it. That remains a challenge even today, not least because IT departments themselves have become so much more complicated and have so much more power and ingenuity at their disposal. This month’s Whiteboard presents a tool CIOs can use to assess the degree to which their companies’ IT efforts are aligned with their corporate strategies.

There may come a day when the notion of alignment itself is as out of date as the vacuum tubes used in the Lyons Electronic Office. That’s the vision of both Stephan H. Haeckel and John Parkinson in our companion piece to the story of LEO (see “Two Views of the Future“). Though they come at the future of business computing from different directions, both thinkers believe business computing in the next several decades will depend on adaptive technologies that demand a kind of pure information architecture, in Haeckel’s words, to which the technology will become completely subservient. Carrying that notion even further, Parkinson sees a time when the notion of architecture itself will become obsolete, as the technology needed will automatically reassemble itself into the business tools required for each task.

Between the past achievements of LEO and the future vision of the corporation as ecosystem lies the present, currently dominated by the recent terrorist attacks that have forced every company to rethink how it manages risk, from disaster recovery to supply chains to brand values. In “Brave New World“—the first in an occasional series on Rethinking Risk—Jeffrey Rothfeder looks at the many areas of the corporation in which planners must reassess their vulnerability to disaster. Flexibility and quick response is the key, and while no company can call itself perfectly protected, it may be that the adaptive technologies of the future will allow companies to re-establish themselves in response to disaster by virtually automating the process of replicating operations elsewhere.

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