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Posted on Harvard Business Review: April 25, 2011 12:04 PM
Every day on my way to work I pass a store offering psychic readings, and I'm often tempted to stop in and ask what lies ahead in the tech world. Is the "cloud" just a passing phase? Will "social analytics" tools prove to be reliable? Will they integrate with current Business Intelligence systems? What impact will terahertz frequencies have on communication technologies?
Those are the kinds of questions that CIOs get all the time. Chief information officers are expected to see deeply into the future and generate IT predictions that companies can build their strategies around. Most CIOs don't like being cast in the role of corporate psychic, but there's nothing they can do about it. So here's some advice on how to make the best of this role and do a better job of seeing the future.
Don't follow the herd. It can be reassuring to sign up with one of the leading consulting firms, which perform solid research and are probably a notch more reliable than the corner psychic. But overreliance on these firms leads to industry groupthink, and complexity-theory research tells us that it's impossible to predict the behavior of a large system (such as the world of tech innovation) beyond the next few moves.
So CIOs should avoid relying on just one source, no matter how well respected, and widen the range of events they attend. Specialized trade shows and conferences such as the MIT Sloan Business in Gaming Conference that draw fringe players and startups can provide unusual perspectives on future technologies and are refreshingly devoid of consultants and other CIOs. Events such as TED and the BIL conference where innovators, thought leaders, and entrepreneurs congregate can be mind-bending. The workshops at the 25th conference on artificial intelligence can shed light on the future of natural language systems. The British Computer Society allows free access to many of its lectures at venues around the world on subjects such as open source, security, and data centers. Technology and innovation ideas can also be found at niche forums focused on the future within industries and at venture capital conferences.
CIOs should mingle with vendors, customers, users, technologists, regulators, venture capitalists, and academics. Better still, they should do this while overseas. An Asian view of technology, for example, may reveal ideas and trends that haven't migrated across the seas yet.
Choose your divining rod carefully. Be skeptical of the white papers that are offered for free by vendors and research firms. Ask yourself why they are free and why the final piece is always missing. Often, they are disguised advertisements, and the missing part can be obtained only by contacting the company. Academic research presents a different problem: It's typically written for other academics and the level of detail is often atomic, requiring significant work to tie the constituent parts into a coherent vision of the future.
As an alternative, CIOs can indulge in some low-risk reverse mentoring. One easy way to do this is to join the advisory board of a technology-focused department at a local university. By hosting brown-bag lunches with faculty and student groups, CIOs can acquire insights from users ranging from Baby Boomers through to Gen Y.
Think carefully before crossing anyone's palm with silver. There are plenty of coaches and consultants who will gladly hire on as a CIO's personal psychic, but becoming a true believer is a dangerous strategy. What if the adviser is misguided or doesn't tell the whole truth? It's natural for advisers to hedge rather than deliver bad news or make specific predictions that may not come to pass. After all, advisers, like psychics, are primarily focused on maintaining the relationship, not telling the truth. That's why so many advisers prefer to make generic statements that are open to interpretation.
Rather than pay for an external adviser, CIOs should consider creating a think tank within the company with rotating membership. Members should be encouraged to go to nontraditional conferences, listen to webcasts, and develop position papers. In addition, a CIO should do his own reading, generate his own thoughts on what is important, and create his own vision of the future. CIOs often complain that they can't find the time to read, yet they end up answering hundreds of emails. One CIO created a "device-free" half hour each day in which he ignores all communication so that he can read and think. Another hired an assistant just to handle emails.
I've often wondered what the psychic would tell me if I ever stopped in. Does she possess some secret knowledge that could benefit me? Does she have a direct line to the future? Then again, how good could she be if she's still sitting in a store by the side of the road? If she were really good, she would have known long ago that Netflix, Google, and Apple were going to be big successes and would have bought their stock and retired.
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