Last Wednesday, I consumed my umpteenth-hundredth sandwich-and soup-and-pastries lunch, at my umpteenth hundredth information technology conference event – the kind of sandwich, pastry, and techie-talk conference I have been ingesting and haunting – like Banquos’ ghost – since I contracted the IT bug more than 15 years ago, now.
I am not kvetching.
Even to my now jaded eyes and taste buds, this week’s offering by our local Yukon Technology Information Technology Information Society (YITIS), was a heck of a deal: Just the kind of tech conference I like – not about IT policies or visions, but about how you actually do IT stuff to accomplish IT ends that have real value for the people who produce them and consume them.
Also, the soup and sandwiches and pastries laid on at the Westmark Whitehorse, were pretty good, too.
If I mention my IT age and experience here, it is because of something I noticed over that lunch: At least half of the audience at this event, and all of the presenters, were younger than me.
Given that I am now in my mid 50s, this should not have been particularly surprising, of course, but it warrants mention, nevertheless.
It part, the youthfulness of the attendees and presenters was a product of the content of the conference itself.
The focus of this event was on the role of IT in the world of business, particularly in the business of small to middle-sized enterprises; and the people involved in small or start-up enterprises tend to be youthful. It takes years of experience to get stolid, and big, and set in your ways.
But the youthfulness I was observing is also, I think, symptomatic of a cultural transformation that is radically reshaping the technological present and future we oldsters thought we were creating a decade or two ago.
The single largest event in the careers of my peer group – a development I am proud to have been part of, in the Yukon – was the advent of the internet.
That was the adventurous and transformative project of my peer group
But the internet is now old news, and about as exciting a discussion subject as tap water to the new crop of techno-hipsters. The exciting project of their careers, it seems, is going to be the deployment of internet and computer technology to transform the way we think about and carry out doing business.
As one of the presenters very correctly pointed out, the rise of social media is changing the power relationship between businesses and their customers.
Even in the heyday of the early internet age, businesses dominated the conversation with their customers.
The world wide web, for all its touted democratization of information sharing, was really just another big advertising medium for traditional businesses doing business in the traditional way.
If they sold you goods or services that turned out to be crap, there really wasn’t much you could do about it, and there was always another sucker out there for them to put one over on.
You might put up a pouty web page, but that didn’t pose much of a communication threat, really, since you would be lost in the general wash of me-and-my-dog personal pages.
With the arrival of social media tools like Facebook and YouTube, and powerful search engines like Google, however, that power relationship has undergone a radical change.
The watershed event that signalled that change was the YouTube video United Breaks Guitars by David Caroll, a song detailing his frustrations dealing with United Airlines after one of their ground crew had smashed up his guitar.
That video quickly “went viral”- that is, started racking up millions of hits, occasioning substantial public embarrassment and stock price damage to the airline.
The rankled consumer is no longer a lost voice in the wilderness, but a real and present danger to a shabby or thoughtless
This kind of younger, more volatile consumer is naturally generating a new kind of young business person, one who has the internal and external media tools to be more personal and answerable to both staff and consumers. You cannot be too cocky or negligent if you are featuring your company on Facebook, or having your customers follow you and post comments on your Twitter account.
It was this new business environment – its social realities, and the technology tools that enable it – that were at the core of what those young guns at the conference were talking about.
It is a transformation that is going to be a long time coming, of course; megalithic companies like Microsoft and Amazon continue with the old patterns of customer-contempt based industry, and continue to prosper doing it.
But it is vitally important to the new, young entrepreneur with his or her start-up to understand those tools and realities.
Invigorating stuff, and enough to make you almost wish to be young again.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.