by Kris Fitzgerald

10 technologies every CxO needs to understand as they move into the future

Aug 08, 2018
Digital TransformationIT LeadershipTechnology Industry

There was a time when every aspect of organizational technology fit squarely within the purview of the CIO. But ask any senior executive of any size company today, and they’ll tell you that things aren’t as clear cut as they used to be.

Network World [slideshow] - Top 10 Supercomputers 2018 [slide-01]
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The ever-rising tide of technical innovation has washed over every functional area of the business, bringing ambiguity to roles that were once compartmentalized, and leading even the largest companies to rethink their organizational structure altogether.

On one hand, the CIO has grown well beyond the traditional boundaries of the “IT help desk,” and now often plays a central role in guiding critical business strategies enabled by technology. The responsibilities have grown so diverse, in fact, that entirely new C-suite positions have emerged alongside the CIO: chief data, digital, innovation, and transformation officers among them.

On the other hand, leaders of every specialization – operations, finance, sales, marketing, etc. – seek to capitalize on the enormous opportunities technology makes possible for their organizations, while grappling with the daunting challenges of implementation and adoption. In a sense, today all executives are technology executives, albeit with varying agendas.

These CxOs (with “x” being a placeholder) have the exciting, but perhaps unenviable job of steering their ship through uncharted waters. They must lead the firm’s technological evolution, implementing the right mix of technologies to keep the company relevant, drive innovation and deliver business value. They are tasked with lowering costs, streamlining operations, tightening security, imagining breakthrough products and services, and ultimately, achieving higher customer loyalty — all without inflicting damage on their current earnings. Yet the instruments at their disposal are largely unfamiliar, untested, and come with no user manual.

How can CxOs come to grips with evolutionary and revolutionary technologies such as AI, machine learning, and robotics, and apply them appropriately to their business models? How can they distinguish flash-in-the-pan technologies from the next industry-altering disruption, and avoid making dead-end investments? How can they harness their exponentially increasing data and exploit it for competitive advantage? How can they find the right talent to run their transforming organization, and lead non-technical employees to embrace the inevitability of an automated future? Key to success on this journey is to start with an understanding of today’s shape-shifting technology landscape, and the tools that are redefining the way we navigate through it.

In my series of articles for the IDG Network, I’ll use a business lens to explore a number of technology issues facing today’s executives as they look ahead to the next year, and the next decade. Here’s a preview of more in-depth discussions to come: 

1. Pioneering work in artificial intelligence

The economy of the future is algorithmic. That is, the use of artificial intelligence is growing at an exponential pace, as the technology becomes easier to develop and businesses begin to understand its potential. Companies are already placing massive bets on AI, but how can they ensure they’re putting the technology to the highest use, and getting maximum value from their investments? I recently participated in IP Soft’s AI Pioneers Forum in New York, where some of the leading thinkers on the subject sought to answer these questions and more. I’ll share some of the most interesting take-aways.

2. The myth of evil AI

We’re still in the early stages of artificial intelligence going mainstream, with the most visible examples being our friendly in-home digital assistants. In the coming years organizations will double down on their AI efforts in the race to become self-driving businesses, both to create dazzling consumer experiences and drive ultra-efficient business processes. But certain naysayers and Hollywood scriptwriters would have you believe that it will all end badly – that the robots will eventually outsmart us and become our enemies. Is too much AI really a bad idea? I’ll separate fact from fiction.

3. Machine learning vs. deep learning

If you don’t understand the difference, you’re not alone. But you’d be wise to get up to speed, because these technologies are taking AI to the next level, unlocking a world of practical improvements for companies in any industry, from personalizing customer service to hiring the best employees. We’ll take a look at some current business applications of each, and how companies can put machine learning to work in their own context.

4. Robotic process automation

RPA software gives companies the ability to handle routine, rules-based tasks without human intervention, increasing speed and accuracy and allowing real people to take on higher-value work. But enterprises should be careful to ensure that automated processes do more than cut costs; RPA is most valuable when it’s a win-win for the company, its customers and its employees.

5. Conversational automation

Beyond the faceless, voiceless bots that are increasingly used to run our business processes, we’re also on the brink of a society filled with “social robots” we can engage in natural conversations. We’re already talking to Alexa, Siri, and virtual customer service agents, but their capabilities pale in comparison to more advanced prototypes already in development. The suggestion of humanoid robots evokes all sorts of challenging philosophical questions. But for now, we’ll focus on the fascinating near-term opportunities and implications for businesses.

6. Cybersecurity

For all the exciting promises of emerging technologies, there must be equal concern over the potential vulnerability of these systems. As every aspect of our daily lives and every business transaction becomes digital and trackable (and thus hackable), the critical importance of robust information security cannot be overstated. I’ll address how CxOs can continue to embrace technological progress with confidence and vigilance to harden the enterprise against security breaches and attacks.

7. Information technology as-a-service

For businesses seeking growth, flexibility, and streamlined operations (and who isn’t?) the movement toward technology-as-a-service provides a powerful advantage. No longer limited to just enterprise software, today’s companies can outsource nearly any technology need to the cloud, skipping the capital investments in infrastructure, reaping the benefits of immediate scalability and predictable costs, and fending off threats from emerging business models. We’ll discuss how to make it work for your company, and pitfalls to avoid.

8. The Internet of Things

The buzz surrounding IoT may have subsided recently in the shadow of AI and machine learning, but make no mistake – IoT is real, it’s growing rapidly, and it’s here to stay. An interconnected web of sensor-equipped devices and machines is creating unprecedented gains in efficiency, productivity, quality, and every other business metric you can name. CxOs who can identify creative ways to deploy IoT concepts and capture the potential of the exploding data in their organizations will gain a leg up on their competition.

9. Blockchain

It isn’t quite yet a household word, but blockchain is subtly changing the foundation of everything we do on the internet. Blockchain is a distributed digital ledger technology. In simple terms, it’s used to keep track of records and transactions in a way that cannot be tampered with, and that represents a huge step forward in the world of information security. Companies from banks, to law firms, to insurance companies are using blockchain to safeguard sensitive data. So, the big question for CxOs is: how can it benefit your business? 

10. The new age workforce

The surge of disruptive technologies transforming our businesses won’t necessarily equate to human job losses, but it will require different skills and a different workforce. Highly qualified technical workers who know these new systems will be in high demand. And after robots make certain jobs obsolete, non-technical workers may need to be retrained to add value in different ways, including the ability to work side-by-side with AI assistants. The companies who can recruit, retain and manage change most effectively will win the day.