Accenture's king of blue-sky thinking

Research director Martin Illsley discusses how utilities could use Flickr and how software development should be like home building.

Some companies profess to put out-of-the-box thinking at the heart of their operations.

Apple and Google, for example, claim to thrive on leaving no stone unturned when it comes to innovation. For instance, the search giant tries to ensure that its developers have 20 percent of their time available for pursuing personal projects, even though they might not come to anything.

But being disruptive and innovative is easier in some industries than others. Financial services is one in which innovation equals risk, which is usually best avoided. However, even companies in the sector that have embraced a so-called "culture of innovation" still face the dilemma of choosing which areas of technology on which to focus research efforts and resources.

While it's best-known for IT consultancy work, also invests in research and development. Martin Illsley, director of research at Accenture Technology Labs, based in Sophia Antipolis, France, spoke to ZDNet UK about innovation and some of the big developments in technology that should be on every business' radar.

What are the main challenges facing businesses at the moment, in terms of practical application of technology?
Illsley: There are choices dragging people apart about how to balance the physical and the virtual. Bank branches are back, but, on the other hand, the virtual is going to the extreme--look at Second Life.

Evel Knievel is a case in point of overestimating the short term: he thought he could jump 27 buses and couldn't.

Assuming you can do everything virtually, what do you choose to do virtually, and what do you choose to do physically?

With inventories, you could put an RFID tag on every chair in the building and, at the press of a button, you could do the inventory. You can drive a car that has a bleeper on the front that lets you go through toll gates at the moment on the continent.

On the other end of the scale, mass people participation is important--wikis and blogs, for example. You can have everyone involved, from the policies you put out, to product design, customer feedback, and service.

Could you expand on that?
Illsley: Amara's Law, which also goes by other names, is that people overestimate the short-term effects of an action or technology, while underestimating the long-term effects. Evel Knievel is a case in point of overestimating the short term: he thought he could jump 27 buses and couldn't.

We do the same with respect to new technologies; we think we've done it all and that it's going to happen tomorrow. We also underestimate the long term, like Evel Knievel. I'll bet he'd never have guessed that by now, he would have given up riding motorcycles and become very religious. He's now riding pillion with God.

It's the same with technology; we underestimate the long-term effects. Take the iPod, for example. We still haven't fully understood its effect on the production of music--it has huge longer-term implications. RFID is not just about tags; it has huge implications for how businesses operate and how society accepts the potential of being tracked.

It's the same with the iPhone. Sure, at the moment, it's being hyped up to fever pitch about what it can do, but the longer-term impact will probably be quite profound. Whether it will lead to a completely convergent device--who knows? It may have an impact on whether people want specialist devices like cameras.

What do you think are going to be the main trends, when it comes to development of technology over the next five years?
Illsley: Firstly, we predict more use of virtualized infrastructures. If you have infrastructures like data centers, you have a choice. You can go to companies like Google and and buy the capabilities--buy the data center by how much you use.

It's the same with Web capabilities. With hosting organizations like 1&1, you get part of a machine somewhere, and they host on a scale that's very economical. Organizations have to think: do we do it ourselves or buy it?

Google is doing virtualized infrastructure on an unprecedented scale, with a proprietary approach that spreads the load over thousands of machines. Many organizations won't have the scale to support it, and virtualized infrastructure will move up the value chain. Infrastructure is moving from cables to machines, systems and applications; organizations can add more on top.

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