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In the second part of his one-on-one with CIOZone, best-selling author and former Harvard Business Review executive editor Nicholas Carr discusses the coming technology disruptions, the shift in IT priorities, and the future role of the CIO.
By Ellen Pearlman
Five years after former Harvard Business Review executive editor Nicholas Carr published his best-seller "IT Doesn't Matter," he's again giving CIOs reason to pause with his new book, "The Big Switch," in which he paints a mixed picture of the consequences of utility computing on individuals and businesses. Here, in the second part of one-on-one interview with CIOZone, the author talks about the great IT disruption to come and the future role of the CIO
CIOZone: There was a lot of discussion around your book ("Does IT Matter?") and just how innovative IT is and whether it provides a true competitive edge. Where will that IT competitive edge come from in 10 or 20 years?
Probably more and more of it comes from the application of software and data, particularly software and data supplied over the network to the end customer in the form of new types of products, new types of services. It becomes less a matter of the internal machinery and more a matter of what would traditionally come under the purview of product development-how do we take this new capability and make it useful and meaningful in innovative and creative ways for our customers? It takes for granted a lot of the basic infrastructure stuff that used to be very difficult and used to cost companies a lot of money and time, and that now becomes really shared infrastructure. And then you can think about creative user interfaces, creative deployments of different devices, for instance, all built off this shared grid. So it becomes more a matter of advantage being in the product, in the service side, rather than the internal operations side.
How does all this fit with the issues that many CIOs in large companies are facing today? For instance, I heard one CIO say he was concerned that a lot of his workforce is retiring, and he was worried about where he was going to find the Cobol experts to run his legacy systems after his current experts retire. How is a CIO like that going to make it through this transition when his company is dependent upon these old systems and old skills that are disappearing?
Yeah, well, it is a struggle. I was talking to the CIO of a bank some time ago, and he was saying how, if you want an entire history of business computing, you can call an archeologist into his company and you have it all right there, built up layer upon layer in his data center. That's what a lot of companies that have made large investments in IT and automation over the past decades are faced with. This stuff just doesn't disappear.
I don't have any magic bullet, but I think that sooner rather than later these companies are going to have to begin rethinking a lot of their old legacy systems and begin to modernize on a quite large scale. And to be honest, I think that's what a lot of traditional hardware vendors are counting on right now, that we're going to see a wave of investment in new equipment, in new software as companies adapt to this new model for IT. But it hasn't been easy in the past to maintain legacy systems, integrate them with new systems, and it's probably going to get tougher in the future.
I'm wondering too if, in some cases, it may require fresh blood in an organization-maybe younger CIOs who don't feel that same connection to the past, maybe who've grown up with all this new technology, who embrace it, and are really eager to move forward-to maneuver through these changes?
I think that's probably true, and I think it's something that we've probably been seeing in recent years, that increasingly companies are bringing in executives with more of a business focus to run IT, particularly if IT has been having problems. That trend will probably continue as maintaining the infrastructure becomes relatively less important.
Another important trend is that users in companies, the younger people who have been living with computers and the Internet for their whole life, are now going to be moving into the mainstream of employment, and that means that a much more technology sophisticated workforce is arriving. This is also going to change things quite a bit, change not only how IT departments might be staffed, but increasingly these people are going to demand greater direct control over the way they manipulate data and the way they use software, and this is also going to be a force to change IT.
So is it possible in that scenario that the customization that IT has been known for in organizations may really push down to the worker level where somebody's using services to create something new and innovative?
Yes. I think that's absolutely going to happen. We're talking about people who have grown up with Facebook, which is a utility supplied application through a Web browser that is enormously customizable by the end user, and very easily so. You can customize what information you share, what information you see, the applications that are running inside your window. It's an incredibly different, more flexible and more personalized model of IT than what traditional companies supply.
In many ways it points to the future of IT where much more power is put into the hands of the end user to make decisions about how they layout information, see information, how they use a different application portfolio on a day-to-day basis. It seems to me that that way of working with computers is not going to lay outside the firewall forever. It really in many ways points to the future of how employees use information technology.
Will that require new management skills? It's hard to have a top-down approach in that kind of environment.
Right. At the very least it requires a new management perspective. One that is willing to release control more to the end user than has been typical up till now.
Next: The Role of the CIO