Was there really a time when software tools lived mostly on your computer and the cloud was something that blocked the sun? It’s hard to remember those days here at the E2 conference in Boston, just as someday it will also be hard to remember the days when businesses were structured vertically.

It’s tempting for a descendant of the sixties like myself to see this horizontalization of businesses as part of the same massive trends that have relegated mens’ ties to certain industry verticals, turned many business offices into open spaces without internal doors and made “collaboration” a necessity for every business. In other words, today’s business, empowered by today’s business tech, feels closer to a rock group of mutual participants than it does to the orchestra-structures of companies past.

SaaS Democratizes Businesses

Take the role of the IT department, a frequent subject throughout the morning keynotes Wednesday morning at E2. It used to be, said Marketo CMO Sanjay Dholakia during a panel about The Marketing Cloud, that “all of the line-of-business folks were po’d at the IT folks, because they had to get in line.” As software-as-a-service (SaaS) started to happen, he said, “the line-of-business folks realized ‘we can get stuff without asking anybody’.”

For anyone who has dealt with sizeable IT departments, this transition can be liberating, almost democratizing. Often, IT held the keys, literally, to getting anything done involving technology, and now, suddenly, SaaS meant the keys were available even to people who didn’t know anything about locks.

By itself, SaaS democratizes businesses and, in taking away the primacy of IT, has begun to empower the thing itself. On the same Marketing panel, HubSpot CEO and Founder Brian Halligan noted that marketing is now “about the width of your brain, not the width of your wallet.” In other words, it’s the content, not the technology.

It’s About the Music, Not the Piano

That was, of course, an odd thing for a panel that sells technology services to say: with online platforms available at little or no cost and with little or no IT support, the differentiator in marketing, for example, is less about how much money you spend and more about what you say and offer. More importantly, just as employees are internally jamming together, so companies are jamming with their customers in something less like a concert and more like a mutual performance.

“It’s like I sell pianos,” Halligan said, “and I teach people to play pianos,” but the real value is the music.

Or, at least, conversational skills, according to Dholakia. Old-school marketing meant that companies “hit you” with their message, and, if they had enough money, they kept hitting you again and again until you surrendered.

The quantum shift is that such a model is decreasingly effective in moving people through the marketing funnel, which Oracle VP of Product Strategy for the Social Cloud summarized as “awareness, consideration, choice and loyalty.”

Controlling the Brand

Forget hitting them again and again to move along through the funnel. “We no longer control our brand,” said Yammer Co-Founder and GM of Engineering Adam Pisoni. “Our customers control our brand,” and the new technologies are there to help companies keep up with their expectations.

And just as marketers are getting around IT, or customers are becoming co-creators of a brand, so software users are getting around the barriers of software buyers. Several speakers during the morning keynotes echoed Evernote VP of sales John McGeachie, who said that “enterprise software traditionally has been optimized for the buyer, not the user,” until SaaS removed that tendency. Pisoni said that SaaS’ freemium model, which made sales into enterprises possible “without a huge sales channel,” similarly meant designing for users, not buyers.

In today’s business, devices are less tools than they are portals into tools, just as companies are less fixed-in-place organizational machines to churn out products and services, and more like anywhere platforms and resources from which products and services are delivered. In other words, grab an instrument and start playing.