by CIO Staff

Warren McFarlan Talks Change

May 10, 20053 mins
IT Leadership

Conference attendees filtered into breakfast at 8:00 a.m., thenl to the Ballroom where CIO magazine Publisher Gary Beach and the FTC’s Stephen Warren (who brought us back the dinner hour) welcomed everyone and introduced the inimitable Warren McFarlan.

McFarlan’s talk, entitled “The Once and Future CIO,” was about change. Rapid change. A boss of his years ago said real-time information was an impossible waste of time. “When your mentor is making an ass of himself in public but you need his help for the next step in your career, it’s very difficult to delicately disengage yourself,” he observed.

His talk was accompanied by slides of bulleted lists, which he told attendees would be available later, so they didn’t need to take notes. Unless they wanted to. To stay awake.

That was hardly necessary. McFarlan’s charisma and knowledge combined to keep the listeners engaged and often laughing.

In his high-pitched, emphatic voice with the varying singsong and staccato delivery of a circus barker, he reviewed some of his key business school cases, all of which illustrate the vast changes of the last four decades. IT, of course, and its workers—from the COBOL and FORTRAN coders of yore to today’s CIOs—are always in the thick of all that. “When one is driving change, transformation and evolution of an organization,” he notes, “To be loved is not something you can count on.”

In fact, he believes change management—a field concerned with applied human behavior, and a hard one—is going to be the one skill that lasts over generations.

Gresham’s Law and Moore’s Law are going to keep going apace, he says, noting that the IT strategies we pursue today are based on today’s restraints and are inevitably going to be looking pretty lame five to seven years from now. “Your successors will look at your achievements a decade from now and won’t say, ‘How brilliant and remarkable!’ they’ll say, ‘How can anyone have designed something so narrow?’” This is one thing Nick Carr missed in his article, says McFarlan.

He talked about globalization, about the inexorable move from bricks to clicks and about the increased difficulty in defining what’s inside your firm and what’s outside your firm. “You don’t have to like it, but it’s the state of play today,” he said. And advised that reading Tom Friedman’s The World Is Flat should be on your to-do list in the next week. He also highly recommended Al Chandler’s A Nation Transformed by Information, which he calls the most thoughtful book on IT.

–Sandy Kendall, Web Editor