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Disruption, data and the changing role of the CIO

The Fourth Industrial Revolution may be defined in terms of the Internet of Things, machine learning, big data or other emerging tech. But those of us who are living through it right now know that 4IR means not only innovation but disruption.

4IR is disruptive when it forces us to change how we have traditionally done business and when it creates solutions to problems we didn’t know we could solve — or didn’t know we had in the first place.

At this year’s SAPPHIRE NOW conference, I had the privilege of seeing how leading companies and minds are approaching 4IR and this disruption, a strong reminder of how quickly the way we work and live is changing.

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Lights illuminate flash memory cartridges the back of a server unit inside the data center of FinTech Group AG's campus offices in Frankfurt, Germany, on Tuesday, April 12, 2016. The volume of investment in Germany's fintech industry will probably quadruple to 2 billion euros ($2.2 billion) in the next five years, said Hubertus Vaeth, managing director of Frankfurt Main Finance. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

At the conference, it was clear that we’ve effectively democratized technology, allowing – and encouraging – employees to use the devices they find most comfortable to access data, collaborate with colleagues, and perform each aspect of their job. Doing so is essential for enterprises seeking to remain competitive, and it is part of building a culture of intellectual curiosity.

However, we also need to make sure we don’t return to what I call the “spaghetti mess” of competing technologies and data, adopted with too little thought to the future. Decades ago, CIOs were ill-equipped, or simply not empowered, to streamline and standardize technology procurement and utilization, which led to waste, redundancy, and dysfunction.

The goal

CIOs have to ensure that they and their staff can support different software platforms that perform very similar tasks. Unlike CIOs of old, today’s technology leaders may have to set aside personal and professional opinions, embracing a range of resources, tools, and processes versus one set in stone, universal approach.

Today, there is no holistic, prescriptive standard for data or technology architecture, at least not in the traditional sense. Gone are the days when the CIO evaluated platforms, made an informed judgment, and established and enforced rigid technological standards for the entire organization. This paradigm shift is a necessary result of the accelerated pace of technological change and increased pressure to adopt emerging technologies to avoid falling behind competitors.

Common mistakes

One possible response is to cling to the old ways, that is, to slow down adoption of 4IR technologies, and to resist the democratization of technology. But the risks of this approach, tempting as it might be given the sometimes overwhelming challenges, are high. First, a rigid or cumbersome process for adopting technologies will surely mean that competitors are moving forward faster.

Second, a company that resists the democratization of technology may discourage potential employees who are intellectually curious. Further, such resistance to change may limit the potential of employees by signaling that compliance is more important than creativity.

While having a heavy foot on the brake is a problem, a CIO who is pushing too hard on the accelerator isn’t the solution. The temptation is understandable. Each of these shiny new technologies, many with a very real upside, is marketed as the one that will put a company ahead of the competition. But the risk here is the high cost, both in terms of the purchase price and the hours of training, for a technology that may not integrate easily or may be replaced shortly after adoption.

Walking the fine line as a CIO

I know and have worked with many CIOs at large companies. They’re well-versed in the latest technologies and they know their company’s strengths and vulnerability. They’re focused on aligning their organization’s technological capacities with its business needs. Still, even the best CIOs struggle to find the right approach today because the role demands both the expertise to manage complex systems and an intellectual curiosity for the future.

CIOs must loosen the reins a bit. CIOs will still be the experts — they will still get into the weeds, asking the tough questions about new and existing technologies. But they will have to keep their heads up and their eyes open wide, maintain an attitude of intellectual curiosity, and apply that curiosity in a way that broadens their work, embraces new opportunities, and helps provide solutions for their customers.

For all of us who are living and working with new technologies and growing data, this is an exciting time, and it calls to mind that well-worn phrase: “May you live in interesting times.”

I get the irony. I know that it’s meant to be a curse. But to me, these times are a blessing, and CIOs who embrace the challenges will achieve great success, add tremendous value to their organizations, and find their work more rewarding than ever before.

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