Future Gazing: The Future of IT in 2020

The next six years will see the influence of technology accelerate, and that will mean radical changes for the role of the IT department and the CIO

In the past six years, technology has had a dramatic impact on the workplace, and the next six years will likely see the influence of technology accelerate. That will mean radical changes for the role of the IT department and chief information officer (CIO).

It is difficult to underestimate the pace of change, said Alastair Behenna, principle analyst serving CIOs at analyst group Forrester Research, speaking to an audience of IT leaders at Computer Weekly’s CW500 club.

“Six years ago, did we think we would have a billion smartphones today? Did we think we would have a workforce rising up for IT, saying 'We want it, we want it'? Did we think Apple and Google would dominate the way they do now?” he said.

What is clear, is that the convergence of mobility, big data, the cloud, collaboration tools and the internet of things will mean sweeping changes not only for business in general, but also for the role and function of the IT department.

CIOs will need to become much more focused on innovation, and less focused on just “keeping the lights on”.

Event speakers

The internet of things will be much bigger than we ever thought, said Victor Newman, advisor to the Social Innovation Lab Kent (Silk), and CIO at the Institute for the Study of Zombie Organisations.

According to network supplier Cisco, the number of intelligent objects connected to the internet exceeded the number of people on the planet five years ago. By 2020, it predicts there will be 50 billion devices connected to the internet, as smart sensors become more present.

But if anything, Cisco’s predictions understate the size of the change ahead, said Newman: “I think it's an underestimate. It's going to be much bigger than that.”

And it is going to change the way organisations behave. Rather than passively monitoring their customers to gain insights about their behaviour, the internet of things will be much more about organisations collaborating with their customers.

“It's going to be less about Big Brother and more about Big Mum,” said Newman.

What you will see is faster processing of customer service and real-time adaptive learning

Victor Newman, Silk

This renewed focus on customer service will be the defining feature of the next wave of business innovation, said Forrester’s Behenna.

That will have implications for CIOs, who will need to work closely with the business to help them develop the analytical and collaborative tools they need to better understand their customers.

“We are in the age of the customer. It’s a 20-year business cycle that is all about attracting and retaining the customer,” he said.

Poor customer service is no longer acceptable, he said. “People are going to want very quick answers, very quick turnaround, and they want it today.”

He contrasts his experience of trying to have a replacement phone line installed after a telegraph pole near his home fell down – a five-month wait so far – with the service he received from Apple. “It has really delighted me,” he said.

And organisations will turn to technology to help them improve their customer service, said Newman, predicting that they will introduce technology that will allow them to improve their service in real time.

“What you will see is faster processing of customer service and real-time adaptive learning, so people online will have options that were not available an hour ago,” he said.

Innovative CIOs

All of this means CIOs will need to become more innovation-focused than they are today. Those that don’t risk their careers stagnating.

New technology will cause faster processing of customer service

Alastair Behenna, Forrester

Forrester's Behanna draws from two real-life examples of CIOs – one who embraced innovation and one who did not.

The first CIO was hired to integrate IT across a diverse organisation with a huge IT budget.

“He was given the job of reducing costs. He was doing a good job on that. Then the financial meltdown came, and he was unable to move forward. Now he can’t get any decisions made,” he said. “His head is on the block.”

Contrast that with a second CIO who decided he would innovate heavily. He understood his business, and started running an innovation laboratory, investigating technologies such as 3D printers and smart cities.

The board gave him multimillion pound backing, Behenna revealed. “He was seen as an innovator and a thought leader. He was prepared to take a risk and put his head on the block and go for it.”

This represents a very different approach from most CIOs. For most of its history, the role of CIO has demanded caution and predictability, not risk-taking.

In the future, the role of the CIO will be less about controlling and more about enabling the rest of the business to use technology in a more effective way.

“This new kind of CIO, who will move from chief information officer to chief innovation officer, will focus much more on being agile and adaptive,” he said.

That means failing fast, learning from mistakes and continually adapting.

In the past clever organisations have worked to slow down the pace of innovation, but that cannot continue in the future.

There will be no repeat of Xerox’s famous Palo Alto research laboratories, which developed technology such as the mouse and the graphical user interface, but left it to others to commercialise, said Newman.

“The innovation cycle will get faster. For a lot of the techniques that people have used to slow innovation down, the brakes will come off,” he said. “We will have an explosion of creativity.”

IT professionals that do not deliver will be out of work very quickly, Newman said.

CIOs will need to build fast, bring in suppliers under non-disclosure agreements, and close down projects fast if they do not work.

Changing IT department

The IT department will change radically under the pressure of these forces, said Andrew Drazin, partner at recruitment firm Theron LLP, which specialises in recruiting C-level executives.

In a few years we will see smaller IT functions that are more highly skilled

Andrew Drazin, Theron LLP

He draws a comparison with human resource (HR) departments a decade ago. Then they were focused on operational work – managing pensions and payroll. Today their role is more strategic – talent management and workforce planning.

“The technology function is going through a similar level of change to the one human resources went through 10 years ago,” said Drazin. “The important thing to take out is that technology is less about operational delivery, less about infrastructure and more about solutions and working with the business.”

IT departments will become smaller, as companies outsource more of the operational work to external suppliers, he predicts.

“In a few years' time we will see smaller IT functions that are more highly skilled and more strategic,” said Drazin. “Technology is becoming more about customisation than about commoditisation.”

Behanna agrees. “Keeping the lights on is not going to disappear. It is going to move more to outsourced suppliers and the outsourced organisation,” he said.

This will be particularly true when it comes to analytics and big data. Data scientists are in short supply, which means organisations will increasingly turn to external suppliers, as the internet of things drives the need for data analytics.

“The cunning stuff will happen in analytics and big data. We see companies will deploy them from a pool of external resources rather than internal resources,” said Behenna.

More on CW500

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  • Shared services present challenges and opportunities for CIOs
  • Five technology forces that will change businesses forever

Managing multiple suppliers

This means that IT departments will need to become more skilled in managing a wider range of suppliers.

They will include a growing number of small innovative startups, not just the large IT suppliers of today. “The supplier profile make-up will change dramatically,” said Behenna.

Changing job roles

Future technology leaders will need to be more competent at understanding the business, and they will need to be better at managing change and managing stakeholders in the rest of the business.

Those skills will trickle down from the CIO to IT professionals lower down the hierarchy, said Drazin,

“Looking forward a few years, as the bar gets higher, the expectations for people farther down the chain will be higher,” he said.

Technical roles will be increasingly outsourced to third-party suppliers, as organisations use the cloud to simplify their applications and IT infrastructure.

“Operational roles will come under pressure, and if there is a risk involved, it’s the people in highly technical roles that have a bias to infrastructure that are likely to be outsourced,” said Drazin.

Fewer IT leaders in the future will come from a purely technical background, said Drazin.

“In the project management space we will see people who are more generalist who trade more on their stakeholder management skills, than on pure technology,” he said. “There will be a definite change in the mix of skills in leadership.”

In fact, many of the roles in tomorrow’s IT departments do not yet exist, Behenna told the meeting. “16-year-olds leaving school will be going for jobs that have not yet been invented,” he said.

Business language

CIOs and IT directors have been talking about the need to communicate with the rest of the business more effectively for the past 15 years.

But over the next six years speaking the language of the business will become more important than ever, the meeting heard.

“There is no excuse for not using the language of internal customers,” said Newman.

And that can mean helping the business to solve their problem, even when you know it’s the wrong problem.

“If you do that, and you are lucky, they might involve you in a meeting where you can be really great,” he said. “But it might be two years further down the line.

The IT department of 2020 might be smaller, and less focused on technology, but for IT professionals it is likely to offer a more rewarding career.

“Working in technology is going to be a far more interesting and challenging place to work in than it has been to date. There are going to be more upsides than downsides,” said Drazin.

Gender balance in IT

CIOs would like to employ more women technologists on their teams, but they have difficulty recruiting them, Computer Weekly’s CW500 Club for IT leaders heard.

A lot of organisations are looking for female IT professionals because they realise they have skills that men don’t, said Andrew Drazin, partner at C-level recruitment specialist Theron LLP.

“The practical problem is that there are just very few of them. If I could tap into a rich team of female talent, I could fill vacancies very quickly,” he said.

Behenna said women often lacked confidence in their abilities.

“I have had a number of women reports. I have had to push them on because they seem to feel they don’t deserve to get any further up the career ladder, and that is a crying shame, because they are very capable,” he said.

Another problem is that employers may not fully recognise the abilities of women IT professionals.

Free downloads from Computer Weekly and Theron LLP

Download Andrew Drazin's report for Computer Weekly on innovation and the future of IT based on interviews with 19 leading CIOs.

Download our exclusive research: Technology Innovation and Change: The IT Department's view. 

Victor Newman, advisor to the social innovation lab, and CIO at the Institute for the Study of Zombie Organisations, recalled an incident when he was teaching a masters course at Cranfield.

Three women sat together and told me that the reason they were here was because they were not talented, he said.

The women had previously visited their HR to department to ask to go on the masters course, but were told they couldn’t because they were not on the company’s "talent list".

“They were so angry they demanded that their names were put on the list,” he said.

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