The Exponential CIO

You may recall a folktale, the gist of which is that once upon a time the sage traveller was challenged by the king to play a game of chess. To motivate the sage the king offered any reward if he won the game. The sage, being a sage, modestly asked for a few grains of rice, using the approach that one grain of rice was to be placed on the first chess board square, two on the second, four on the third...

I am sure you can imagine the amount of rice required by the 64th square, and the king's surprise.

It is also surprising that many organisations do not see a similar trend in respect of their business and the environment in which they operate. Examples include:

  • The growth in competitors as the emerging economies come on line.
  • Similarly the growth in potential market size.
  • The growth computing processing power and bandwidth capacity.
  • Increasing customer expectations.
  • The rising cost of talented people.
  • The growth in the Ebola vaccine market.
  • The speed at which decisions need to be made.
  • The growing interest in corporate and social responsibility.

As with all exponential trends the initial signal is undetectable. But then all of a sudden you become aware of the trend. Before you know it the trend is driving your organisation's strategy. Mobile phones come to mind. It wasn't so long ago that such devices were banned by the IT function. What would your organisation look like today if you had embraced the mobile trend back then?

Here are some more trends that are on an exponential path but are perhaps yet to register on your organisation's radar:

  • User/customer experience – e.g., virtual and augmented reality.
  • Robotics – eg. as part of your workforce and eventually as part of your customer base (personalised broking agents).
  • Data science – eg. holographic predictive analytics.
  • Nanotechnology – eg. quantum/molecular computing.
  • Human performance - eg. wearables, embeddables and digestibles.
  • Home manufacturing – eg. 3D printers.
  • Smart materials – eg. in office furniture, the car park and buildings.

Gartner's Hype Cycle is a good source of what signals we should be looking out for. Though in respect of maturity I think the amplitude (defined by expectation peak and disillusionment trough) is likely to shrink substantially.

I am sure you already have a strong sense that the world, your business and new technologies are moving just a bit too fast for you to genuinely feel in control. If for some reason you are hermetically shielded from reality perhaps put some time aside to watch the film Unstoppable (starring Denzel Washington) to get an emotional sense of how your role is about to pan out.

So let's set the scene. Imagine your business is a train with your CEO as the train driver and her trusty CFO as co-driver. You as the CIO are as usual desperately shovelling in coal to keep the train moving. A board meeting is called in the dining carriage so the CEO and CFO join the others for a multi-course gathering. The presumption is that the train will stay on the tracks and so it is not a risk for the leadership to leave the engine command post.

You continue shovelling but for whatever reason the train is starting to accelerate. Maybe it's a new batch of highly efficient fuel or more likely the train is now on a prolonged downhill stretch.

What started off as a civilised luncheon now looks like a monkey's tea party as food, dining tools, waiters and diners are not where they should be. Panic is the prevailing mood in the dining carriage. No doubt the customers and suppliers in the passenger carriages are feeling somewhat distraught too.

Did nobody see this coming? Does anybody really think the track is going to level out?

Many executives are running their organisations like newlyweds on the Orient Express. From an analogy perspective let's just limit this to the fact they are so in love with each other they don't even look out of the carriage window.

The only person with the vantage point to have seen this is you, if you hadn't been so busy shovelling coal. The quarterly reporting model of many organisations gives rise to 'frog boiling' syndrome; in that frogs that do not measure thermal gradients and more importantly act on them in good time come unstuck. Thanks to Darwinism this syndrome is now a myth. But hopefully my point is understood.

I think there is a real opportunity for CIOs to take on the role of Chief Forecaster or Chief Exponential Officer (nice acronym!). This should be comfortable territory for you. We work in a fast moving industry. We make judgements all the time about when to embrace a new technology and when to simply keep an eye on it.

All of the trends I have cited have technology at their heart. So for me you are the natural candidate. I bet you didn't see that coming!


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