ManagementSpeak: We have a new level of confidence in your capabilities based on the project you just completed. Here’s your next project.

Translation: You know that no good deed goes unpunished? Neither does a demonstration of competence.

But demonstrations of excellent translation are their own reward.

A funny thing happened on the way to the future — it ended up looking a lot like the present, only more so.

Information technology is trend city. Those of us who write about it are always looking for the Next Big Thing. The problem is, there are far too few NBTs to fill the space we need to fill every week (about 800 words in the case of Keep the Joint Running, including ManagementSpeak).

Since I’ve been in the field, the list of NBTs that turned out to actually be big is pretty short:

  1. Personal computers and everything that runs on and attaches to them.
  2. Database management systems.
  3. Graphical user interfaces.
  4. Local Area Networks.
  5. The Internet, World Wide Web, and electronic mail.
  6. Object-oriented analysis and programming and services-oriented analysis and programming.
  7. Visual programming.
  8. Open source.
  9. Virtualization.
  10. Smartphones.

How about tablets, the cloud, big data, and social media? Maybe.

Tablets are entering the workplace but aren’t (yet) transforming it, except for a few specialty areas. Cloud computing? It’s almost entirely the same old stuff only on someone else’s servers — there’s little or nothing in the cloud that’s new and interesting.

Big data? Few organizations even have medium-sized data; fewer yet have a culture that supports the sort of data-driven decision-making that warrants big investments in data warehouses and analytics (which is why, other than “visual programming” which includes report-writers and similar technology, these don’t make the list).

How about social media? Socially, very interesting. For businesses? LinkedIn matters for recruiting. Twitter has mostly replaced the press release. But most companies that have Facebook pages more or less reproduce their corporate website there — they haven’t cracked the value code, and it isn’t at all certain there’s a value code to be cracked.

All four are, that is, potential NBTs with varying degrees of promise.

So we have ten proven Next Big Things, with roughly four years between appearances. Miss the next one and you’ve blown it. Spend too much time chasing NBTs, though, and you’ll miss something even more important — day-to-day business.

Look, Apple is known for its breakthrough innovations. Justifiably so. And yet, how many successful ones have there been since the second coming of Jobs? The iPod, iTunes Store, iPhone, iPad, and maybe the App Store.

Five at most. Everything else is incremental improvement — day-to-day business that leverages these five breakthroughs.

Follow Apple’s lead. Keep your eye out for breakthrough opportunities (which are also deadly threats if one of your competitors takes advantage of them well ahead of you) because all it takes is one to give your company an enormous advantage in the marketplace.

But spend most of your time on the fundamentals, which are:

  • Support for personal technologies: Keeping employees operational with their PCs, smartphones, and occasional tablets, and helping them become more sophisticated in their use.
  • COTS support: In most shops, IT’s bread and butter is installing, configuring, integrating, and extending commercial, off-the-shelf software.
  • Application development: While most IT departments do a lot less of this than they do working with COTS packages, they still do quite a bit of it, and yet, for some reason, no matter how many times we analyze the business, design a database, and create screens to add, delete and change records, the next time we do it, it’s still hard.
  • Project management: Whenever you’re trying to make tomorrow different from yesterday, project management is the skill you need. Without good project managers … and the project management culture they need to be successful … your company will be trapped in its current configuration, unable to adapt to anything.
  • Software quality assurance and change control: Yes, in principle, SQA is embedded in COTS support and application development. In practice, it’s a separate, independent trade within IT, with more affinity for change control than anything else. SQA and change control are how you make sure COTS and in-house-developed application changes don’t mess up …
  • Operations: The Rodney Dangerfield of information technology, operations gets no respect because the only time anyone even knows it’s there is when something goes wrong. Otherwise it’s invisible, and keeping it invisible is the single most important responsibility CIOs have. Not the most strategic, but definitely the most important, because in this day and age, when systems are down, the business is down.

These are the basics — the blocking and tackling the business needs from you, day in and day out.

Which is why I call this blog Keep the Joint Running.