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The enterprise IT landscape today is still largely defined by architecture and application development approaches implemented with varying success over the past 40 years. Much of the existing IT environment is custom-developed and purpose-built using everything from the mainframe-based “green screen” to object-oriented languages, Java, open source, and now Web scripting tools. Niche applications operate alongside suites of commercially available applications that are relatively static in design, often cumbersome to learn, and difficult to configure or customize. Requests for new applications and enhancements to existing applications require significant investments in time and money that often leave IT departments under fire from end users and senior management.

As friction between IT and the business increases, a new enterprise computing paradigm will emerge: the broad adoption of user-developed business applications. Today many enterprise applications fall into the trap of trying to be too many things to too many people. By 2020, user-developed business applications will evolve from spreadsheets and simple databases built and maintained by a single “power user” to feature-rich, lightweight applications built by anyone to address the needs of the individual, small teams, or entire departments.

This is not to say that today’s enterprisewide enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) applications will disappear, but rather that they will be complemented by applications quickly built for specific purposes that enable end users to rapidly understand, adapt to, and capture value in a quickly changing environment. These applications will grow, evolve, and be retired as the needs of the user and the goals of the organization change.

So what is IT’s role in this new environment? First and foremost, data is critical to making these applications useful—capturing, maintaining, and delivering data in real time to any application that needs it, dynamically adapting to whatever screen the end user wants. IT departments will provide this data much as they provide networking capabilities today. Accordingly, the mechanism in which these applications will live and access their data will be network-based (in other words, the “cloud”), and maintaining this environment will be a primary focus for IT. Of course data quality and security need to be addressed, and regulatory and statutory requirements will need to be incorporated transparently into the end-user-accessible development tools, objects, and frameworks with which these applications will be built.

The IT professional will evolve from being a creator of application code to a designer of the tools, objects, and environment the end user accesses to build an application. This shift will bring new talent and creativity into IT, as a premium is placed on being able to create robust, user-friendly interfaces and platforms. The successful IT professional of 2020 will interact with users more like the Apple Genius Bar consultant does today, advising people on new ways to use the technology, and will look less like the car mechanic taking apart an engine and struggling to explain how all the parts fit together and why it costs so much to fix.

The adoption of user-developed applications in the business world will largely mirror what’s happening in the consumer market with user-generated content. Where content creation and publishing used to be expensive and time consuming, the creation of user-friendly tools that abstract the underlying complexity has allowed consumers to create and share content in a fraction of the time and cost from just 10 years ago.

As technology-savvy “millennials” enter the workforce, they will demand that enterprise IT adapt to the way they work and collaborate at home. Those firms that embrace the vision of user-developed business applications will succeed in attracting the best and brightest of this new generation and enabling them to unleash their full creative potential, radically altering the world of business innovation.

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