There’s an interesting tectonic shift in IT these days. For decades we’ve focused on applications and data, with users sitting at the fringe poking the application to make it do things (register a lead, update customer details, create a purchase order, generate an invoice, and so on). But running through a list of the new generation of technologies we see that the one thing they all have in common is the primacy they place on users.

Web 2.0 technologies (wikis, blogs, etc) make this primacy explicit: each technology is designed to support teams of users as they collaborate and work together. Composite applications have a similar focus, providing users with clearer and more coherent views into company business data and functions. Even service-oriented architecture (SOA) has a similar effect; collecting differentiating business logic into BPM and rule enabled services where it is easier for the user (the business owner or SME) to understand and manage it. And the approach even extends to how we deliver software, with the agile family of methodologies placing the user front and centre.

With this thought in mind, I found it interesting that Oracle purchased Sigma Dynamics the other week. Sigma Dynamics is designed to augment users rather than simply supporting them, providing insight and suggested paths to follow rather than simply data or information. I think that Oracle’s purchase points to the next front that’s opening up in enterprise software.

SOA and Web 2.0 are breaking down the walls between departments and organisations to create a boundaryless environment. There’s little difference between outside and inside anymore, as we work across boundaries to take a holistic approach to our work. At the big end of town companies like are Dell taking a holistic approach to managing their supply chain, removing barriers between Dell and their suppliers to share information and optimize the complete product delivery process. At the small end we’re using collaborative technologies to build distributed teams, pulling together a diverse group of stakeholders to share information and create solutions to challenging problems. We’re even starting to marry the two approaches, using SOA to provide users with visibility across the boundaryless environment and then integrating Web 2.0 technologies to allow users to collaborate and work more effectively within this environment.

But the boundaryless environment is creating as many challenges as opportunities. As we brake down barriers between organisations we exponentially increase the number of options available to employees, partners and customers. Our current inability to capitalise on the opportunities is the new limitation of IT, and dealing with them is the new frontier.

How do we support users as they navigate through the options to find the right choice? We need to start embedding intelligence into our solutions, moving from simply supporting users to providing them with insight. Software can look across the boundaryless environment to consider and collate data and options beyond the capacity of people, distilling them down to a few suggestions. This is what Sigma Dynamics does. The software augments the users, providing them with the ability to scale and support the huge volume of data and choices available.

We’re starting to see a range of solutions emerging that take this approach, from the business focused Sigma through to the more informal Pandora. As with SOA and Web 2.0, these solutions are focused on supporting distinct user roles-a welcome break with the monolithic applications of the past. But point solutions can only go so far.

What we really need to do is extend the existing technology stack, integrating the technologies at the heart of these solutions to create a new layer that can support the sort of non-linear, trail-and-error processes that are currently the domain of people. There are some obvious choices out there, such as machine learning, intelligent agents and multi-agent systems. Most of these technologies have already been proven to solve the types of challenges that the boundaryless environment creates. Our challenge is to successfully integrate them into the existing SOA and Web 2.0 technology stacks and make them available for all.