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The Adaptive Stack

IT always evolves by building new system layers on top of preceding layers, while concurrently abstracting away from users of these new layers extraneous details of the underlying layers. In the resulting current IT “stack,” we predominantly interact with content and application layers, and when applicable and available, process layers. And we are well on our way toward abstracting away the networking and hardware infrastructure on which our applications run—bundling that big buzzing confusion into “the cloud.”

Much more recently we have begun to add a social layer on top of our other software layers—still a work in progress in most organizations. So far, these social-based systems can more often be considered architectural bolt-ons rather than a truly integral part of the enterprise IT stack. But that is clearly destined to change.

And coming right on the heels of the social layer is the learning layer—the intelligent and adaptive integrator of the social, content, and process layers. The distinguishing characteristic of this layer is its capacity for automatic learning from the collective experiences of users and delivering the learning back to users in a variety of ways.

So this is the new IT stack that is taking shape and that summarizes the enterprise systems architecture of 2011 and beyond. And since auto-learning features promise to be an integral part of every system and device with which we interact, it is the reason that the next major era of IT is most sensibly labeled “the era of adaptation.”

As I discuss in the book, there is something qualitatively different about the combination of these last two layers of the stack—the social and learning layers—in contrast to all the layers that came before. These new layers cause the boundary between systems and people to become much more blurred—it is no longer just a command and response relationship between man and machine, but rather, a mutual learning relationship. And exactly where the learning of the system and the learning of people begins and ends is a bit fuzzy.

Perhaps then, our new stack more accurately summarizes the next generation enterprise architecture, not just the IT architecture–an enterprise architecture of a different nature than that which has come before, one in which learning and adaptation is woven throughout.