I remember learning to do page layout on a Mac back in the late ’80s. I could fit headlines, place photos, even try new fonts — the possibilities were endless. What would all the graphic designers do for work once everyone learned how to do this?

And then everyone did. Some of the ugliest public notices I had ever seen proliferated on telephone poles. Lost cats! Yard sales! Causes! People took full advantage of their new freedom with page layout. I had to look away.

Now something comparable might now loom over us in business: users of IT displacing experts. “I don’t even know what IT is anymore,” said Stanford University contributing professor Blake Johnson. He studies business analysts, and by his definition a competent analyst can do a “good enough” job of data management. They’re the new middlepeople between the old IT and the analysis-hungry business departments. (I'll go into that in a later column.)

I can imagine a new group of business analysts within the organization. It colonizes what has been the no man’s land between business departments and traditional IT. This group would offer the organization a new and sharper competitive edge.

That couldn’t come at a better time. Dave Wells, a well-respected independent consultant in business and information management, has had his eye on a complementary trend for a long time: receding IT.

Two years ago he predicted that the typical CIO would eventually have a role more like a CFO. Instead of the classic IT response to wrongheaded practices  -- “Unplug it now!” -- you’d have a meeting of peers. The CFO-like CIO would ask skeptical questions just to test arguments and agreements for flaws.

The trend’s force, says Wells, comes partly from technological evolution: newly ample and cheap bandwidth, virtualization, the cloud, user-friendly interfaces and other developments. Another factor is the new plug-and-play generations of knowledge workers who arrive as if pre-fitted for keyboards and are accustomed to iPhone-type autonomy.

What if the new Blake Johnson model of business analyst doesn’t colonize quickly enough? Would the IT department’s relocation offshore and to the cloud just leave room for a larger break room with more vending machines and tastier cheese snacks?

Data analysis would occur mostly among people who may have learned tools but may not yet appreciate data integrity. The new outsourced, offshored, cloud-based IT won’t be there to throw its shadow around anymore. And the newly declawed CIO will be just one sentry. Data hygiene rigor will depend on knowledge and culture within remaining departments.

Some specialties have a data obsession already, such as direct mail marketing. But others I’ve seen have no qualms about bending numbers to suit.

At some point, natural selection takes over. People, departments and organizations that use data poorly tend to fail while the rest do better. And sooner or later, standards rise, such as when cat owners settled on just one font for their public notices. Success wasn’t as simple as learning a new tool.

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