Keeping Pace with Evolving Technologies

IT leaders are struggling to manage workers and customers who demand constant connections, mobility and flexibility, prefer electronic networking over in-person contact, and multitask with ease but may not have the same thinking processes as previous generations.

When most people see a billboard, they see an advertisement. David Zanca sees the future.

Zanca envisions the ad enabling a transaction right then and there. Pass a poster hawking golf clubs, just wave your smartphone, and you're done. Your computer will order, pay and arrange for shipping in mere seconds.

"It will happen in the future. I don't know when, but we will get to that point," says Zanca, senior vice president for e-commerce technology at FedEx Corporate Services in Collierville, Tenn. "People's expectations continue to evolve, and they want quick answers, fast transactions."

IT leaders must delve deeper than most into evolving technologies. They must also consider how those technologies are changing us as individuals and as a society. Today, that means managing workers and customers who demand constant connections, mobility and flexibility; who often prefer electronic networking over in-person contact; and who multitask with ease but may not have the same thinking processes as previous generations.

"I've had to change the way I think about what work means, because technology is changing us. Everything has to be instantaneous, and convenience is a big factor," says Christopher R. Barber, senior vice president and CIO at Western Corporate Federal Credit Union.

He sees younger workers used to online connections and activities expecting the same type of environment at work. They seek information and professional connections electronically and instantaneously -- often forgoing e-mail for the immediacy of instant messaging and texting. They think nothing of juggling multiple programs at once and using mobile tools to work outside of traditional business hours and conventional office settings.

"As an IT manager, how can I tell them that they can't use their tools?" Barber asks.

Likewise, Barber says consumers expect more from his company's IT capabilities. Already, he's investigating the infrastructure needed for mobile devices to be used like credit or debit cards to pay for purchases.

Zanca sees similar demands coming from a changing society. "Computing has become so pervasive in a distributed mobile-type fashion that I have to connect with my customer whenever and however they want to conduct business," he says.

A customer attending the Masters Golf Tournament and shopping for Masters merchandise, for example, will expect to wave his smartphone over a bar code to buy the products, fill out the shipping information and pay shipping costs, says Zanca.

"I do think we're rapidly evolving to a society that depends on things like PDAs. And when they break down or you don't get a signal, it's almost like you become completely ineffective," says Gregory S. Smith, vice president and CIO at World Wildlife Fund.

Smith says he recently spent three days in Tokyo, where his smartphone didn't work. He says he found the lack of cell and data connections "very disturbing," although he was able to find alternatives.

But despite that experience, Smith says he must set limits on what his IT department can support. "The consumer technology market is influencing the corporate IT space, and it's doing so with more and more requests for near-instantaneous support for every product that comes out," he says. "The challenge for IT executives is to figure out what people need to do their job."

To meet that challenge, though, IT workers must have a broader set of skills than they've needed in the past, says Michael Carlson, vice president and CIO at Xcel Energy Inc. in Minneapolis. If IT departments are going to deliver applications that will be useful, they need to think more about users' interactions with and attitudes toward technology, he says.

"It used to be I just programmed in the functionality. Now we have to think almost psychologically about what the consumer wants and expects," Carlson says.

And people are putting their new tools to good use. "I look at people who are joining the workforce and they want fast answers, but they're very creative and they're very hard-working. They just have a different style," Zanca says.

Frank Modruson, CIO at global consulting firm Accenture LLC, has a similar outlook. He has seen a shift in how his employees communicate, with many more people now using Web-enabled audio and video connections to get quicker results. This, in turn, has shifted where employees work and when.

The result: Work is more integrated into everyday life. Chicago-based employees, for example, collaborate with people in Madrid, Manila or Mumbai from their homes in the early mornings or late evenings and don't think too much about it.

"That's the new norm," Modruson says. "It's not good; it's not bad. It's just shifting. The way we interact with our environment is shifting. And what it means for the workplace is, you'll have to keep up with the consumer space, because the consumer space will set expectations for these capabilities."

Next: "Are computers transforming humanity?"

This story, "Keeping Pace with Evolving Technologies" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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