Today I offloaded some CDs at the charity shop. I was asked what condition they were in. Since I haven’t owned a CD player in over 5 years, I said that I thought they were good, but that they’d need to check themselves. This led to a conversation about the pace of technology now. It’s mad that streaming has rendered the CD and DVD player obsolete. Perhaps I’m just old now.
We’re in the midst of game-changing transition. Technology has, in recent years, transformed how we behave both at work and at home, and Moore’s Law argues that that the pace of technological progress will only ever speed up from here on in.
We know that commercial landscapes are set to become infinitely more technology-centric - digital transformation promises untold efficiency to improve both profitability and customer experience.
Given the pace and scope of technology innovation, however, how does a CIO remain on top of an accelerating digital landscape?
As little as five years ago, a CIO CV would demonstrate the skills and experience gained in a highly bespoke commercial environment, with much of the IT infrastructure stack designed, built and managed in-house. Today, from an ROI perspective, low-cost PAYG technology options challenge the business case for building in-house. It’s far more commercially appealing to take advantage of the myriad cloud-based business offerings.
Furthermore, the range of technology available across every aspect of both commercial and consumer life has changed the very relationship that humans have with tech. Its pervasive nature makes most users far more willing to experiment with apps and readily available web-based tools that improve the way we do things. More than ever, it’s now the height of cool to be a "geek" and an early adopter of emerging technology. It used to be trainers; now it’s gadgets.
How we engage with technology in our personal lives transforms our expectations of it in the workplace. Younger cohorts expect technology to be instantly accessible and to be able to access the applications they want, whenever and from wherever. BYOD is old-school, we’re now in the age of BYOA - "Bring your own Anything." These younger cohorts will move jobs if they feel career progression is hindered by a limiting technology environment.
So, what can an IT leader do? He or she is faced with countless technology options, a boardroom mandate to crack on and use technology to create commercial advantage, faster than the competition, at reduced cost, and of course while maintaining a robust and secure 24/7/365 uptime environment. No pressure. Total exposure.
We can ponder the lexicon of this brave new landscape, and perhaps consider hiring a Chief Digital Officer alongside or instead of the traditional CIO. But this is just tinkering.
Limitless choice renders it impossible to retain expert status across the technology piste. As Kevin Kelly wrote in The Inevitable:
"Endless Newbie is the new default for everyone, no matter your age or your experience."
To remain ahead of the game in technology leadership, the royal jelly of future success will be a constant figuring out of how to maintain a stable yet constantly evolving technology environment where all data is safe and secure. It will be a constant evaluation of where to go next, what to allow, what to dismiss, all the while continuously justifying your arguments in front of an audience that a) wants immediate access to quick fixes and b) doesn’t always care about the business imperative of safety, security and governance.
This requires a new set of human skills. It requires pragmatism, dexterity, advocacy and above all, the tenacity to hold steady in the wake of constant disruption. Your new world landscape will be like constantly trying to complete a 5000-piece jigsaw when you can’t even find the edges.
The pre-eminent skill for the future CIO will be the humility to recognise that it’s no longer humanly possible to keep on top of all the emergent technology options in micro-detail. That would be like trying to drink from a fire hydrant.
Equally, trying to inhibit the creeping uptake of the latest business applications within a commercial environment is a waste of time, and will arguably be perceived as an outdated attempt at power and control.
Far easier would be to assume the role of advocacy and education - asking colleagues to consider the following before being lured by the next time-saving or experience-improving application.
1) Is the application secure?
2) Will it compromise the business in any way?
3) Does it pass on any proprietary data to 3rd parties (particularly pertinent in the case of any low cost / no cost applications)
4) What is its likely shelf-life?
5) How easy would it be to migrate away from this application if it becomes unworkable for any reason?
Having users ask these questions creates an environment where people are thinking more holistically (and sensibly) about new technologies, and demonstrates leadership capability that transcends the 20th Century paradigm of hierarchy, power and control.
The future of work is fluid; technology will irrevocably change the nature of organisational structures and of work itself. Leaders who have the self-awareness to adapt to a collaborative approach, working with all stakeholders in true partnership to embrace continuous learning are, to our mind, far more likely to be successful than those who maintain a hierarchical (and perceivably authoritarian) stand in an effort to maintain status and control.
Kelly, K. (2016) - The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future. New York: Penguin Random House
Conversations with several forward-thinking CIOs across the past few months have informed this blog. Guys - you know who you are. Thank you.