Opinion by Thornton May

Where is modern IT heading?

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Put 100 CIOs in a room and ask them that question and you’ll get no consensus

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Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead was once asked what the band's goal was. His response: “Our goal is to make the music only we can make.” Like so many other things, this sound bite got me thinking about IT. What is the value only enterprise IT can make?

In today’s world, what is IT’s distinctive skill set? What is it that only we can do? Put another way: In the future, what will be IT’s super power? To answer this set of questions, I dusted off my Rolodex (a decidedly non-modern artifact), went to 100 of the smartest business people I know, and asked them a simple question:

Where do you think modern IT is heading?

As it turns out, that is a very difficult question to answer. I’ll get to that, but first, let me explain why I asked the question the way I did. 

What’s with the word modern?

I included the word modern in my question for three reasons. One reason — which derives from an eloquent explanation that the chief operating officer of a publicly traded financial services firm once gave me — is that IT, now that it touches everything and everybody, everywhere and every when, can no longer really be thought of as just one thing. The list of tasks that fall within the genus IT is almost limitless. It includes maintaining a multi-continent ERP system, patching productivity software, establishing machine-to-machine communication between sensors, negotiating data management policies with European governments, embedding ethics in the code governing unmanned vehicles, designing the user interface for bartending robots on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, conceptualizing pricing for nonlinear entertainment networks such as Sony’s Crackle, getting the sensors in a mattress to talk to the sensors in the home HVAC system to algorithmically determine and then create the optimal environment for REM sleep, managing the call desk that supports customers enjoying Bose’s Sound Touch home audio system, and setting behavioral incentives designed to induce blue-collar workers on the shop floor to input inventory and parts use data. So when we discuss IT in the modern age, we have to be a bit more specific about which IT we are really talking about. There are multiple ITs. I want to talk about the future-facing part of our now fragmented discipline. I want to talk about modern IT. That is reason one. 

Reason two derives from a discovery that really surprised me. One of the tools anthropologists use to study tribal behavior is word use — that is, how do various groups use, abuse or not use language? I was surprised to learn that while most groups in society today make frequent use of the word modern (modern finance, the modern home, modern literature or modern art), the word has all but disappeared from the IT vocabulary. I have not yet finished my analysis of why this might be. Perhaps we in IT do not use the word modern because we are convinced that everything we do is modern and thus the word is viewed as being redundant. I want to reintroduce “modern” into the IT discussion. I want to rebrand IT as modern. 

Reason three is that outside of IT, what we do inside of IT is not perceived as being particularly modern. Anything but, in fact. Our discipline, more likely than not, is viewed as being the antonym of modern — behind the times. I want to rebrand IT as being part of the future as opposed to being stigmatized as apart from the future. The general narrative pulsing on the four screens that comprise modern existence today portray a Manichean world where IT is slow and stupid, speaks in tongues (geek speak), and has no idea about how the business makes money (or achieves its mission, in the not-for-profit arena). This portrayal is ludicrous. The CIO is one of the most important members of the executive team, if not the most important. I believe “modern” CIOs should be paid more — much more. But that is a subject for another article.

No consensus

If you put 100 senior IT executives in a room (as we just did at Ohio State University) and ask them where modern IT is heading, you will not get a consensus answer. Even if you assemble CIOs from the same vertical market, as we did with public-sector CIOs at the FLGISA 2014 Annual Conference and the GMIS 2014 Annual Conference, and ask them what modern IT looks like, you will not get a consensus answer.  

Responses exist on a spectrum from “IT disappears” to “IT pulls a Putin and takes over.” Linglong He, the award-winning, high-energy and spectacularly charismatic CIO at Quicken Loans, told students and faculty at Ohio State that “technology is the driver. Business is the passenger.” This in marked contrast to the CIO at a high-performing utility who raised the question of whether the CIO — essentially the EVP/SVP of information — will face the same career extinction as the now departed and forgotten 19th century chief electricity officer. 

I welcome your thoughts and comments as we move forward in our examination of where modern IT is heading.

Futurist Thornton A. May is a speaker, educator and adviser and the author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics. Visit his website at thorntonamay.com, and contact him at thornton@thorntonamay.com.

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