Thornton May

The CIO’s guide to mastering IT trends

Jul 29, 2022
IT Leadership

CIOs can be trend masters or trend victims. Those that fare best know how to navigate the sea of tech trend chatter to keep their organizations on top of the latest disruptions and opportunities.

Computerworld Tech Forecast 2017 - Tech Trends to Double-Down on Now
Credit: Thinkstock

Monitoring IT trends is no trivial task. After all, the deluge is considerable.

Every day, single-shingle IT cognoscenti blog, tweet, and podcast their thoughts about the future of IT. Every week, vendors — the supply side of the tech community — release whitepapers and forecasts about where they think (or hope you will think) technology is going. Every month, consultancies, research firms, the press — the tech community’s services side — adjust and amplify annual technology predictions. Every quarter, government agencies, think tanks, academic centers — the administrative/regulatory side — publish thought leadership pieces about what comes next. Every year, trade associations and venture capital firms publish reports detailing how technology trends will impact specific industries, products, issues, and/or disciplines. 

We are awash in suppositions regarding technology change.

In the face of such a firehose, what are IT leaders to do regarding IT trends? It’s inconceivable to keep on top of them all. And yet, keeping apprised of — and ideally, ahead of — IT trends is a key facet of IT leadership in today’s era of rapid disruption.

The best way for CIOs to approach the sea of technology prognostication consuming the IT community is to recognize — and perfect — the following four key roles IT leaders should play in keeping their organizations informed of and on top of the latest discussion and debate around IT trends.

CIO as trend collector

CIOs first and foremost must collect and impart meaning to the IT trend informational avalanche. Old-fashioned trend analysis was watching the torpedo as it comes at you. CIOs today must act proactively and prophylactically to ensure their organization is focusing on the right trends, in the right way, at the right time.

CIO as trend communicator

In his seminal work on technological forecasting, James Brian Quinn suggested that technology trend forecasting should become a daily part of the executive info-intake process much as economic forecasts, market forecasts, financial forecasts, and weather forecasts.

In our digital age in which technology trends create opportunities and can materially change competitive circumstance, I believe CIOs need to formalize the IT trend communication process — much like the President’s Daily Brief. The CEO and their direct reports should receive a crisp, fit-for-purpose, regularly scheduled briefing regarding key IT trends.

At the board level, it is conceivable that IT trends should discussed at every meeting — paying particular attention to positioning and impact on key customer relationships.

In preparing the IT Trends Briefing, CIOs should be sure emphasize the relationship to and impact on organizational objectives and human motivations.

CIO as trend coroner

Organizations can over-allocate, under-allocate, and mis-allocate resources to IT trend analysis. CIOs have to balance FOMO (i.e., fear of missing out) enthusiasms with realities of “paralysis by analysis” and strategic relevance. In the dotcom run-up I remember a cartoon with the caption, “We need to rethink our strategy of hoping the internet will just go away.”

That said, a big part of the CIO’s value add in the IT trend space is deciding which trends don’t require immediate attention or resources. The CIO serves as a trend coroner detailing “cause of death” and “time of death” — that is to say, why a given trend need not be pursued at this time.

What is fascinating about IT is that a trend that is “dead to” one organization may be critical to another’s survival, often in a different industry. For example, over the next five years there are many organizations that will not need to move aggressively on unmanned vehicles. The Department of Defense, however, already has well over 20,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in operational inventory.

CIO as trend creator

Too many in our industry view IT trends as exogenous variables — billiard-balls zooming at us from “outside” the enterprise. In reality IT trends reflect the wishes, needs, and dreams of ahead-of-the-curve IT professionals.

In his magisterial treatise on 500 years of technology change, Leonardo: Technology & Culture From the Renaissance to the Present, Thomas Misa argues that historical actors played a major role in “choosing and changing technologies in an effort to create or sustain their vision of the future.” Misa is telling us that we are the ultimate source of IT trends.

In their provocative and compelling book Homo prospectus, University of Pennsylvania Psychology professor Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman and University of Michigan Philosophy professor Peter Railton argue that man is misnamed. We are not really homo sapiens (i.e., wise) or homo habilus (i.e., handy). What we really are is homo prospectus — a species capable of contemplating the future and considering the prospects of alternative futures.

CIOs have a choice. They can be trend masters or trend victims. To be trend masters, they must stimulate the enterprise to think creatively about the future they want to inhabit and provide the tools to make it happen.

Thornton May

Thornton May is a futurist. He has designed and delivered executive education programs at UCLA, UC-Berkeley, Babson, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, THE Ohio State University [where he co-founded and directs the Digital Solutions Gallery program], and the University of Kentucky. His book, The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics examines the intersection of the analytic and executive tribes.

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