You Can’t Use a Smartphone for Everything

The types of devices you give your colleagues and the way you deliver data have an impact on how they understand information. Business-focused CIOs learn how people in their organizations think, so they can apply the right technology to spark better decisions.

Technology may enable the always-on worker, but Mother Nature doesn’t allow an always-on mind. That creates a dilemma for companies that want employees perpetually in touch but know that a distracted person makes subpar choices. The same problems arise when people sit at their desks, suffocating in data, but are asked to make strategic decisions.

“The challenge we face in our ability to concentrate on any one thing has become enormous—unless you put controls on people’s relationship with modern technology,” says Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School. Iyengar is the author of The Art of Choosing, about how people make decisions and how to choose better. She concludes that giving customers or colleagues too many options can impair their ability to make skillful choices.

This is the tightrope CIOs must now string for their companies. The ability to deploy systems that help colleagues make decisions—not simply close the books or place orders, but think—is emerging as a critical dimension of the CIO’s job. You must become a scientist of organizational and human behavior to really exploit IT. (For more on helping colleagues make better decisions, see "Teach Young Workers to Be Business Thinkers.")

Ken Harris, CIO of Shaklee, says his 22 years in IT have taught him about the habits of the mind. Typically, Harris says, a person won’t make a decision until he identifies a familiar pattern in the facts, which makes him comfortable enough to act. This is often a slow, incremental process, he says, which partly explains why many companies plod rather than sprint.

Decisions are composed of fact and feel, says Tom Murphy, CIO of AmerisourceBergen, a $72 billion pharmaceutical distributor. Technology can collect and sort facts quickly, but no computer—not even IBM’s Jeopardy! winner, Watson—can simulate the gut feeling of an experienced decision maker, he says.

But here lies opportunity. Harris, Murphy and other CIOs say that if employees could be made comfortable more quickly and attain clarity sooner, companies could not only move forward faster but leap far ahead. If, as management gurus say, the meta job of a CEO is to tell the story of the corporate vision and each employee’s special role in fulfilling it, then that of today’s CIO is to arrange technology to both reflect and shape the way a company thinks.

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