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A story chart of the corporate information age

by Mark Raskino  |  October 27, 2017  |  Comments Off on A story chart of the corporate information age

It was nineteen-eighty-something. “Information technology, is a societal, epochal technology” said my university lecturer, quoting a translated Japanese author (that made the insight seem even more wise and visionary). Like … wow man.

Decades later I find it helpful to reconsider the 60 to 80 year journey that historians call the ‘information age’. It’s not ivory tower thinking, it can be very enlightening for business and IT executives as they grapple with questions like “what the heck is digital really and when did it become a ‘thing’?” or “why are we being disrupted?” or “was that Nicholas Carr stuff  they taught on my MBA wrong then?”.

Corporate Information Age

Developing a presentation for a recent CIO lifetime achievement award event caused me to ask “where are we now?”. After all, the actual job title CIO was invented in the 1980s.  So I drew a chart – a story map really – of the great information age from a corporate IT leader point of view. It’s super simplified of course and just one perspective. However I  think it could be orienting for those who are leading digital transformation programs in large old enterprises that have the corporate cultural memory of a herd of elephants and the inertia to match.

Carlota Perez says great technological ages are like football – a game of two halves. Well, no she doesn’t really say that.. but that is one of the important perspectives I take from her outstanding work as an eminent economic historian. In the first half of a great age we use the new technological power to augment and accelerate the world that we already know and operate. That’s what we did with IT right up to the millennium really. We used it to improve processes and manage costs in a business. However the second half plays out differently.  Once we really understand the new power, and it’s supply becomes ubiquitous – then we redefine and rebuild all of society based on what it can do. That’s what’s happening now. We are still quite early in that second half period when we reinvent everything – from products (autonomous cars) to social behaviors (swipe right), war (notPetya) and democracy (@realDonaldTrump).

Inside corporations the switch-over is still causing all sorts of confusion and complications. The powerful masters of first half management techniques are now semi-retired to the boardrooms. It takes a lot for them to admit to themselves that the game really has changed since they were actively managing – and so must the way companies invest in technology related innovation. I think the worst of the transition pain is past us though. We got through the mistrust period when Nicholas Carr wrote that IT didn’t matter and companies everywhere threw their tech guys over to the outsourcers. Now we are are in a technology reputation recovery and reorientation phase. It is cool to be a tech guy, or woman, again. If you have a good resume then every Fortune 500 company wants to recruit you away from Google or IBM to work directly for them instead – as those great 2015/16 GE TV recruitment ads demonstrated. That’s because CEOs are all agreeing now – digital business is vital to competitive advantage. Constructing your unique, differentiated, special, company cloud based digital business platform is vital to secure the future.

The current phase is centered mostly on adding products (things) to the internet and the secondary consequences of all the additional data that gives us to see how the world works and manage it better. At Gartner we see all the new business value arising at the blurred boundary between the physical and virtual worlds. That could manifest itself in your everyday life as a physical retail store with no need to checkout, or a customized running shoe that is printed on demand, or a vape. It’s a world of invention based on data as an advancing asset class – as my colleague Doug Laney explains in his new book Infonomics.  And already its forcing us to discuss the next and probably the last horizon of the information age – the era of AI, Blockchain and Quantum computing.

We are NOT there yet. AI and Blockchain hype is premature and out of control, while Quantum hype is beginning to grow. Most corporations have little idea what to do with these yet and no way to practically execute. For example as the New York Times pointed out recently – there are probably only 10K deep-AI experts in the whole world today.  But in time, these very raw technologies will improve and mature to the point where we can do some more complete industry reinventions with them.

Are you wondering why my chart ends at 2045?  Well that’s approximately when, according to Ray Kurzweil, the singularity will turn up. As futurists* love to point out – nobody can predict what happens after the moment of magical transcendence when the machines become smarter than us. But I have two bets for you. First – I’ll wager the new AI overlords will still struggle with the confusion, politics and complications of large company transformation programs! Second, I reckon the job title chief information officer will probably still be around.

* no – I am not a futurist, he is.









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Mark Raskino
VP & Gartner Fellow
15 years at Gartner
30 years IT industry

Mark Raskino is a vice president and Gartner Fellow in the CEO Research group. Mark creates advice and analysis for CEOs on technology related and digital business strategy and change Read Full Bio

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