Bridging Peer-to-Peer’s Culture Gap

Clay ShirkyIn the view of Clay Shirky, a writer, consultant and senior analyst with O’Reilly & Associates Inc., peer-to-peer computing isn’t just good for the communications needs of business; it can also transform how companies interact with their IT departments. CIO Insight chatted with Shirky about the new look P2P computing will bring to corporate culture.

CIO Insight: Why is peer-to-peer necessary? Why can’t companies use intranets for interpersonal communication?

SHIRKY: The intranet has not worked for two reasons: It’s pull, and it’s centralized. Let’s say there’s a document updated by one department, and you don’t want changes to be e-mailed to you every morning. But the minute you say, “Let’s build a Web site and people can go check it every day,” you know that’s going to fail. The centralized nature of the Web means that people need to keep two things in their mind at one time, which is hard: First, I need to finish my work (but don’t have enough time). Second, at the end of the day, I need to upload changes to the intranet. Anyone who actually does that is a space alien. It just doesn’t happen. In storing and collaborating on files, people have simply adopted solutions that let them do things they want to do, whether IT likes it or not.

What should IT’s response to peer-to-peer be?

The classic CIO problem is that his business is a profit-maximizing enterprise, but the IT department is not. Anyone who’s ever worked as an IT manager knows that there’s very little upside in doing something with risk. There is a culture of risk aversion that puts them at odds with employees. That historical tension has led to a culture where IT will prohibit people from doing things via policies or technology or some combination of the two.

If you were to ask the average IT department, “Do you think the average user is smart enough to download and install his or her own Web server?” they would laugh until milk came out of their noses. But that’s what Napster is. Part of it is a cultural inability to see that the rules of the game are changing, allowing user configuration of not just the desktop, but the user’s relationship to the corporate network.

What are the potential advantages of peer-to-peer to users and to IT?

Peer-to-peer moves a lot of the hassle of maintenance of the system on to the users on the edges of the network. It decentralizes a lot of the workload. For example, if you wanted to host files on your own hard disk, it would take you weeks to create a budget with IT, get a domain name registered, then make your files available. Napster showed us you don’t need to do any of that. You can download your software and have human-readable names and be trading files in five minutes. You’ve got all this potential upside for the IT department to get rid of the boring servicing of users. So we can make things more flexible for employees, with less hassle for the IT department.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is going to be some victory over the IT department by the forces of right and truth. There are still big problems. But the history of giving users more control is that it lowers costs at the center of administration, increases dynamism and lets businesses become more profitable—or at least to run at the same efficiency with less cost.

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