IT leaders need a posture of future-readiness, allowing them to adjust to what happens next in the changing geopolitical, economic, regulatory and technical realms. Envisioning possible futures, their demands on IT and ways to meet those requirements will help them to identify strategies they can put in place three or four years from now.
The role of the information technology department is under scrutiny in a way that makes its past challenges seem almost quaint by comparison. One of the reasons for this is the increasing power and utility of the technology that exists on the outside. Employees are getting their work done using free Web applications as well as their own laptops and smartphones. Traditional IT function roles are being displaced.
It may be an exaggeration to say that IT departments should go the way of telephone operators, but the function is clearly primed for reinvention. According to a recent survey, IT was chosen most often as the function business executives would most like to build from scratch. We need to give credit to today’s CIOs for understanding the need for change: IT executives singled out their own function as a target for reinvention by an even larger margin.
But how should enterprise IT evolve? What will it look like in five years from now, and what should be its roles, responsibilities and business goals? These are the questions that executives are debating. Less than a third say they have a clear vision of how their IT function will look by that time. Something that is particularly unsettling is the lack of clarity about the CIO position itself. Barely one in five business executives say they know what the CIO role will look like in five years. For executives with that title, this makes figuring out the future a matter not just of professional duty but of career survival.
To arrive at a new vision of enterprise IT, CIOs and senior business executives should focus their efforts on creating enterprise IT functions that are “futures ready.” A futures-ready posture recognises that it is short sighted to bet on a single outcome. It is much better to recognise the radically different ways in which the business environment could change, imagine how IT might adapt to those changes, and have the judgment, readiness and courage to evolve when the time comes.
Enterprise IT doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Our research into the factors influencing business and technology uncovered more than 60 forces that could have an impact on the IT function’s own future. One of the most important is the cultural impact of consumer IT. Smart phones and social networks like Facebook are transforming how people work, play, learn, shop, share, talk and organise. As a result, we’re seeing huge changes in culture, attitudes and workplace behaviour. Others include the impact of geopolitics and state regulation, new ways organisations are approaching innovation, and the rise of global, Internet-based competition.
Future IT needs will be determined in large part by the interplay of these forces. Futures-ready IT leaders will anticipate what futures could emerge, how they might affect their company’s strategy and operational requirements, and what will be required from enterprise IT.
Many opinion-shapers believe they know what’s coming: a flat and increasingly connected world with exponential growth in data and computer intelligence. But continued growth in connectivity isn’t assured; how flat the world really is, remains to be seen. Many things could affect the flow of information online, including Europe’s strict data privacy regulations.
Globalisation could shift into neutral or reverse if the economic crisis in Europe worsens and the US dips into another recession. Business people and policymakers have a mutual interest in avoiding these situations but other events beyond their control could occur that affect how companies use technology. Resistance to data-gathering on individuals, laws that harshly penalise companies when their customers misuse public networks and websites, or even prolonged sunspot activity that interferes with electronic communications could cut consumer use of the Internet and compel companies to operate without it.
What’s telling is that twenty-seven percent of executives expect companies to start seeking alternatives to the Internet within the next five years. Business leaders may prefer to live in a technology-friendly world with a strong economy, vibrant international trade, and no barriers to cloud computing, smart phones or other technological advances. But one thing is for certain- in the future, anything can happen.
Jeanne G. Harris is executive research fellow and a senior executive at the Accenture Institute for High Performance in Chicago. Allan E. Alter is a Boston-based research fellow with the Institute.