Mind Meld: McCormack and Hollis, IT Today and in the Future

  • IT Today and in the Future

Predicting the future of IT requires one part "feet on the ground" and one part "head in the clouds." In their ongoing dialogue about IT, bloggers Chuck Hollis and Ade McCormack strike just the right balance.

Ade McCormack, columnist for the Financial Times, author of The IT Value Stack: A Boardroom Guide to IT Leadership, and founder of consulting firm Auridian, and Chuck Hollis, EMC's most popular blogger, met through each other's blogs. They exchanged observations during a transatlantic phone conversation about where IT is today and what it might look like in the future. Here are edited excerpts from their discussion.

ON: Let's start by discussing IT as it is practiced today.

Ade McCormack: Today businesses can't exist without IT. However, it's not apparent what value IT provides. I see a strong need for IT to get its act together and present its value proposition to users.

Chuck Hollis: Ade, you use the word "entwinement" in your book—going beyond aligning with the business in order to become part of the business. Of course, if IT becomes too entwined in the business, it's part of the business and no longer IT.

Ade: There are the extremes—from one where IT won't go near business people for fear of being physically assaulted to the other end, where IT is driving the business agenda.

Chuck: We're starting to see an emergent trend where IT organizations are proving their value through the governance of information. Have you seen this?

Ade: Yes. In fact, I see information as the first step in terms of validating IT investments. In my book, I discuss the importance of circulation management—the flow of data, information, knowledge, and, ultimately, wisdom around the organization. Circulation management paves the way for collaborative technologies such as wikis and Web conferencing and how they allow the sharing of not only information, but also knowledge.

ON: What's IT's involvement with the new knowledge-sharing and management technologies?

Chuck: Here at EMC, as I work on developing our social media proficiency, I find it's less about technology and more about people and social engineering. It's not an IT thing although IT can show leadership. Through social computing, IT has access to not only all the computers in their organizations, but also an ecosystem of billions, potentially.

When you draw the picture that way, a very different type of thinking emerges. IT doesn't have a strategy for this yet, and there are no "best practices." Some IT leaders are realizing there's a new way to engage with the business in a collective sense, but few are doing it.

Ade: I recommend that IT implement these technologies all over as quickly as they can. If knowledge is generally resident in people's heads, not on people's computers, it's in the interest of the shareholders to institutionalize that knowledge so it can be shared with others. The knowledge management stream is very important because, on the balance sheets, there's no monetary reference to intellectual capital. That's about to change, in my view, as knowledge management starts to interest the chief financial officer (CFO).

Chuck: At EMC we're capturing roughly 4,500 knowledge workers' interactions—the threads, the discussions, the wiki postings. It's institutional learning, or perhaps knowledge management 2.0—searchable, tagged, ranked in terms of usefulness, commentary on top of commentary. It's a very different approach from the traditional mode of sitting down and typing at a computer. People are doing it because they want to, and we're capturing amazing knowledge.

ON: What skills should IT invest in for the future?

Ade: In general, IT managers are good with technology, but uncomfortable sitting in the boardroom discussing profit, balance sheets, risk, and governance. If chief information officers (CIOs) truly want to make IT strategically relevant, they need to equip themselves with business skills that enable them to survive in the boardroom.

Chuck: There's no seat at the table unless you understand the business. Many IT people got where they are because they're smart technologists, but now that's holding them back.

IT owns all the company's information, perhaps the most important asset in the company. If they start thinking of themselves as CFOs of information, they'll learn the business.

Ade: Historically, IT has enjoyed a position of power and, while CIOs may come across as naïve, they are conscious of their empires.

With information governance, you're now offering the CIO a route into the boardroom. This appeals to their power mindset, but also encourages the development of a business mindset, with language the CFO and chief executive officer (CEO) understand. CIOs can move away from operational IT delivery and become more strategic in their outlooks.

Chuck: That's true. In fact, we're already seeing some CIOs get to the boardroom through the lens of all the information they have.

Ade: There's real value lying untapped in those organizations, and IT doesn't realize they have a unique perspective on the business. They need to start waving that around in front of the users. Otherwise, they are going to be swapped out by predatory, commercially alert third parties.

ON: Fast forward to 2015—what's IT going to look like?

Ade: The IT person of the future is going to look more like a user, but offer the value of a strategic enterprise perspective while users will have a business unit perspective.

Chuck: In 2015 there will be 10 to 15 times more information with an inherently mobile, knowledge-based, globalized workforce that is comfortable not only collaborating within the enterprise but outside of the enterprise. IT managers will find themselves at ground zero for what I believe is the most significant transformation in our economy ever—from an economy of transactions to knowledge and information. Because of this, IT will have a very different function, with very different motivations, skills, and behaviors than we have seen in the last 10 years.

Ade: I believe there will be a global shortage of IT talent, with a rise in demand and a rebirth of the IT rock star who says, "Employ me on my terms." This will require a new type of management, with IT managers losing control. IT workers will be sitting at home on Facebook in their shorts, and there's nothing we can do about it.

Chuck: The alternatives are worse, which we can discuss more on our blogs.

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