CXO

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Poking CIOs with a stick

How I riled up the IT chiefs at silicon.com's CIO Forum

Initial draft written at the silicon.com CIO Forum in London on 26 September 2006. Polished at the end of the week in my home office and despatched to silicon.com via an optical fibre feed the following morning.

I have been attending the annual silicon.com CIO Forum for the past few years and this year it was my job to give the opening keynote.

Well before the day I pondered how I would go about energising a room full of CIOs fresh in from the battlefront of a very fast moving industry. These folks have their heads down all year struggling to keep on top of technology, business and people changing. This wasn't going to be an easy task!

Although IT is a young industry a lot of minds seem to be atrophied (or petrified!) into reacting negatively to almost any form of change. It is a largely rule-laden and movement-restricting industry, due to the sheer weight of trying to cope with what is!

After a while I decided there was only one course of action. I had to poke the audience of over 250 CIOs with a 'big stick' if I were to get them to think out of the box, see and debate the potential for change and, worse, the changes coming that they stand no chance of controlling.

Well it worked! A few people seemed incandescent at my opening address. It created a lot of debate and discussion. And I like to think, it teased out far greater levels of openness and honesty than I had seen in the UK for many a year. In short, this became a North American-style event - hot and interactive!

So what did I say? Here are some of my main points. You can also download my Power Point slides for the presentation here.

  1. Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s people who knew deep technical stuff (nerds) were derided and discounted. The management attitude was that these people were irrelevant and a pain. Deep tech understanding was not seen as necessary to manage anything. How the world has changed - today some of the richest people in the world are ex-nerds!
  2. This retrograde management attitude had a lot to do with the greater than 85 per cent failure rate of IT programmes through that era, that continues today in industry, defence, education and healthcare. Know-nothing managers are a menace to any industry and profession.
  3. Not including the end user, not understanding the technology and not understanding the difference between data, information and knowledge is not only dangerous - it turns out to be very expensive!
  4. The biggest universal mistake has been to take the old paper processes and transplant them to the screen, and then create even more paper! IT presents a much bigger opportunity to change organisations and operations but, unfortunately, people seem unable to adapt and change in more than one dimension at a time. Contrast the old (50- to 100-years-old) companies to the new (10- to 20-years-old) and it is stark in the way they use IT to create, run and advance the business.
  5. Increasing numbers of mobile workers means the notion of centralised databases are going to be more difficult to sustain. In a lot of companies the transition will be from filing data away in a predetermined structure to finding what a worker needs when they need it, a far more Google-like existence.
  6. We have to think about data, information and knowledge being collected, collated, created and stored by a wide variety of sources and not just think in terms of centralised operations. Mobile workers and young people are a new source of everything. For example, the young jump straight to Google and Wikipedia as their sources, whilst a mobile workforce is hunter/gatherer-like, collecting and creating on the move to meet their immediate need. This is a far cry from the deskbound cultures of old.
  7. And then there is modelling, any kind of modelling, from crowd behaviour and flow in a retail store, to market modelling and ecological economics. We can no longer afford the crude management decision-making tools of the past as it is all getting far too complex for the knee-jerk reaction!
  8. CIOs and their teams have a prime responsibility to keep companies and boards ahead of the game. They have to be the IT and potential threat radar, the thinkers, the modellers, the guiders of the corporate hand. Keeping on top of the latest Office patches isn't where the action or responsibility lies.
  9. Young people will help transform everything. They think and act differently and come with new expectations and skill sets that often outclass and outflank the established order of the IT department. Most likely they will not work for a centralised and controlling regime, and will certainly usurp the old ways of doing things. This new attitude and skill set needs to be embraced as an opportunity for change rather than being a target for punitive action.
  10. Everything is moving to the edge of networks and organisations - computing power, communication, skills, information and knowledge.
  11. Increasingly the future will be about taking risks - not blind risks - but calculated, modelled, tried and tested risks. And the CIO has a new and key role in the process. IT isn't an adjunct function of the company; it is central to success and as such needs to be recognised as an asset by boards and managers in general. Unfortunately, IT is one of today's least-loved corporate functions and seen as some form of creative chastity belt. This has to change fast if organisations are to grow and prosper - the clock is ticking!

Well, this turned out to be a Marmite presentation. People either loved it or hated it. But as intended it energised the room and generated debate. To my great delight, what followed was one of the best conferences ever, with high degrees of openness and honesty. Here are a few one liners that made me smile, made me think, made me see CIOs in a new and more hopeful light:

  1. "We are incredible apologists, and yet we are business people."
  2. "I'm not an IT guy - I have domain expertise and I aggregate."
  3. "We have to learn to let go."
  4. "Being in services is a great thing - something to be proud of."
  5. "It makes no sense to use Google at home and then ban it at work."
  6. "We can't control everything - we can't keep the new out."
  7. "I like the HR (Human Remains) department - they are hated more than we are."
  8. "I was in a meeting and didn't know what MPLS was so I looked it up on Wikipedia - and guess what, when I asked a few questions, it turned out that no one else knew either."
  9. "Rather than fearing Google we should hold them up as an enviable model of innovation, adaptability and delivery - we should aspire to be like them."

At the end of the day I did a round-up and listed all the key take-aways I had collected, of which the above list is just a small sample. You can download my Power Point slides for the wrap-up session here.

All of this filled me with hope for the IT industry and meeting many of the individual CIOs gave me more hope still. For the most part they were energetic, connected, thinking and best of all, doers fighting for the attention of their boards and the future of their companies. These folks need listening to, they need a main board position, more influence and say in the overall operation of a company because they understand what is possible.

So what worried me? Those people who were incandescent at my opening presentation. They need to think, they need to listen and they need to enter into the spirit of a new and youthful industry that has the ability to change everything - or kill it!

A few days after the forum I was asked if I ever worry about people not agreeing with me. My reply? Never! Disagreement is a primary agent of change as it catalyses different points of view, promotes debate, enhances thinking and through positive discussion enhances creative tension. Feeling comfortable and content in a fast changing world is dangerous!

Yes, this was a good forum and a day well spent!

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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