Most of the CEOs I know can handle bad news. But I don't know any that like surprises. The CIO who can help the boss more accurately predict the future and manage profitability across economic cycles can be indispensable.
The power of prediction is a strategic asset. Companies that manage economic cycles smartly don't squeeze margins to keep their share of a shrinking market, they walk away from business when the premium no longer covers the risk. When the economic cycle is on the upswing, they don't just re-invest in whats been profitable in the past. The next products and markets to generate high returns may be very different from those that did so last time.
CIOs can play a critical role in delivering better intelligence on short-term demand, emerging trends, and potential market disruptors. For example, pharmaceutical firms that have access to more information through their interaction with hospitals can be better positioned to deliver blockbuster drugs and improved treatments. Auto makers who decide to join the growing number of equipment makers, for whom leasing is as strategically valuable as sales, may require entirely new two-way flows of information with customers and adjustments to their business design.
We now have powerful tools for predicting the future, and the data, technology and people who know how to use those tools to generate actionable information and reliable forecasts. Digitally enabled conversations, movements tracked by a global positioning system (GPS), and online communications can be valuable (if sometimes controversial) sources of information for analysis, baselines and comparisons. It seems like every company I talk to lately is interested in creating an information advantage. I think they're on the right track.
But don't neglect the weak signals. There is probably a lot going on in the market - and in your own organisation - that might be a bellwether. Here are a few suggestions as you gaze into your crystal ball and try to help the CEO make sense of an uncertain future.
• The right talent - What technology and information skills are most in demand on job boards and social media channels? What positions are your competitors, vendors, and executive recruiters looking to fill? Are academic institutions a leading indicator in your industry? What is being published and what new curriculum is being introduced into management and computer science programs at top universities?
• The right technology - What open source trends might you want to explore or track? (By the way, there's nothing wrong with learning from others' mistakes.) Look across the innovation spectrum. What's the hacker/maker community working on? (Integrating sensors into hardware and software looks like a hot topic.) What projects are your vendors and academic institutions working on in their labs? Are you following the conversation at high-profile events?
• The right business case - Look inside your own organisation. What are the budget allocations and investment categories in each business function? What new capabilities are in the discretionary budget or wish list for, say, marketing or human resources? Look outside, too. What are your competitors saying in their annual report or quarterly investor calls about major investments and priorities? What is being written in the premier business journals about the domains of interest to your company? (If you're only reading technical journals and industry analyst reports, it's time to broaden your horizons.)
What are some "weak" or unusual signals you rely on to look into the future?