Visions of the future

Until someone invents time travel, no one can predict with certainty the conditions under which businesses will operate. That means companies and their IT departments need to be ‘futures-ready’: ready to recognise the radically different ways the business environment could change, and to envision how IT might adapt to those changes.

Imagine an interconnected world where information, trade and ideas flow freely across borders. This would create the ideal environment for innovation and the use of IT. It will also breed fierce competition. If organisations fail to stay current they will quickly fall behind their competitors. All companies will need a flexible and agile IT infrastructure, incorporating state of the art applications and analytics. Executives will invest in IT innovation when they see an opportunity for market differentiation.

In contrast, security woes can have a damaging influence on how consumers and companies use IT. A future of security-induced caution will stifle innovation and cause consumers to scale back sharing information online. Security worries and reduced access to customer data will limit how companies use IT and information. Doing business will become more complex and business costs will rise.

Another possibility is that the global marketplace starts to fall apart.  A future of localised competition will force IT to become decentralised. If this becomes a reality, international companies will call upon IT to help them reorganise their business operations to build and replicate local processes, use local providers and use in-country data to analyse local markets.

IT will almost certainly need to stretch its capabilities to meet tomorrow’s business needs, whatever future arises. If business executives and employees get tired of waiting for IT to give them what they need, they will take matters into their own hands. Accenture’s global study of consumer technology found that 43 percent of employees now say they feel comfortable making technology choices on their own.

In the not-too-distant future, it will be even easier for non-IT managers to manage IT. Cloud services combined with data integration and data stream publishing technologies could make it possible for divisions within companies to select technology the way a consumer shops, as opposed to having technology handed down by a centralised IT department.

What makes an organisation futures-ready isn’t a particular IT organisational structure or technical architecture. It isn’t adhering to one ideal model for the CIO role or IT management. All of these will and should vary by industry, existing capabilities, and the particular future that unfolds. What makes an organisation futures-ready is a certain focus in how it thinks and plans its enterprise IT future. In particular, the futures-ready IT organisation will:

Be worldly visionaries. IT leaders will think about technology’s future without being techno-centric. When they plan enterprise IT’s future, they will weigh social, political, economic and demographic forces and uncertainties that will affect their company’s business, not just the technological ones.

Open up the process of creating the new enterprise IT. Tomorrow’s enterprise IT can’t be designed only by yesterday’s IT managers. The executives who forge the new enterprise IT will make sure the process is inclusive, not insular. It will be led both by the top IT and non-IT executives.

Seize the future that has already arrived. Futures-ready executives will take advantage of new technologies that create new business possibilities, such as context-based services, social IT and platform as-a-service. They will also experiment with new management and information gathering tools like crowd sourcing.

Shatter the boundaries of the possible. These companies will accept the challenge of performing at a level once considered out of reach. They will explore how to do the risky and seemingly impossible. And as they do, they will find breakthrough IT practices and invent the IT organisation of the future.

Make IT roles fit business needs, not technologists’ ambitions. Some companies need strategic, transformational CIOs. Others may have more modest needs, and will focus on such goals as cost reduction or ensuring security. These companies will be better served by a CIO who is more of a manager than a strategist, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Envisioning the future of enterprise IT and becoming futures-ready is a tough task. It will require the imagination to challenge old assumptions, and the courage to act upon new insights. IT leaders have both the opportunity to seize today’s business and technology opportunities, and the burden of preparing for increasing competition and discontinuous change. Betting a company on a single future is naïve, misguided at best, and irresponsible at the worst.

Posted by Jeanne G. Harris and Allan E. Alter

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.


Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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