Thornton May: Futuring should be job No. 1 for IT

The one thing we definitively know about the future is that we will spend the rest of our lives there. And yet people don't think enough about the future. It's as simple as that.

Most people allocate minute fractions of their time and brainpower to the future. This includes otherwise rational executives who have somehow decided that their days are best spent addressing whack-a-mole operational exigencies, participating in non-value-producing political infighting and documenting regulatory compliance. This is all wrong. We need to make more time for thinking about the future. In IT, futuring should be Job No. 1.

The technology industry is all about time. How long tasks take, how long things last, how long it takes to learn a new skill, and how long before it's time to walk away from long-held skill sets. Time-to-mastery and time-to-obsolescence have become critical dials on the CIO success-o-meter. That makes learning curves critically important. Most readers recognize that there are two curves in IT: the curve we're on, and the curve that comes next. In the early days of IT, a CIO's value was in making sure the enterprise was "doing things right" -- optimally allocating assets to running the business (that is, being at the top of the current learning curve).

In an environment hyper-accelerated by disruptive technology change, the key part of a CIO's value becomes enabling the creation of businesses that capitalize on the power shifts that accompany technology change. Careers will be made on timing and executing curve jumps successfully.

The first step is to redefine your relationship with the future. Futuring is not what you do when you're finished with the imagined real work of operations. Futuring needs to come first. This means that the quarter before you start the annual budgeting process, you should allocate resources to projects and personnel that will serve as a bridge between the present and the future.

In doing that, it's helpful to keep in mind the Three Horizons portfolio model popularized by Mehrdad Baghai and his colleagues at McKinsey in The Alchemy of Growth. Horizon 1 represents a company's current products and services. Horizon 2 projects relate to the next generation of high-growth opportunities in the pipeline. Horizon 3 concepts are next-generation prototypes.

Picking up on that analogy in Escape Velocity: Free Your Company's Future from the Pull of the Past, Geoffrey Moore describes Horizon 2 as the "ferryboat from the future into the present. Its job is to take a promising next-generation technology and turn it into a material business." These are opportunities that will become new core businesses, potentially replacing current cash generators. He who owns Horizon 2 owns the future. And who better than the CIO to say, "I will take responsibility for it"?

Escape Velocity shows what can happen when such opportunities are ignored, detailing how the tyranny of today (all those quotidian events that keep you from thinking about the future) derailed some of the most profitable franchises in modern business: AT&T, Digital Equipment, Kodak, Polaroid, Silicon Graphics, Sun, Wang and Xerox.

Cultural historian Rosalind H. Williams at MIT argues that we are living in "an age dominated, if not determined, by technological change." The person who masters technology change will be the hero of the age.

Thornton A. May is author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics and executive director of the IT Leadership Academy at Florida State College in Jacksonville. You can contact him at thorntonamay@aol.com or follow him on Twitter (@deanitla).

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