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The CIOs' Dilemma: Making The Leap To The Next Phase Of Computing

Jan 17 2014, 11:11am CST | by

The CIOs' Dilemma: Making The Leap To The Next Phase Of Computing

Photo Credit: Forbes

There’s an annoying buzz hovering around CIOs’ heads these days. It goes by many names but has the same aggravating hum no matter who’s saying it.

Some call it digital transformation; others, digital IQ; still others, the digital industrial economy. It portends disruption for CIOs – not that that’s unusual for CIOs, of course – but this kind of disruption may rank higher on the Richter scale. The potential damage not only to an enterprise but the CIO’s career is higher.

Gartner calls it digitalization, a particularly tricky tongue-twister. It categorizes it as the “third era of enterprise IT,” the first being automation of operations, the second being the predictability and openness of IT. These first two eras map pretty cleanly first with mainframes and second with PCs.

The third era is a bit messier because it’s not just about computers getting smaller, although mobility enters heavily into the equation. But so does the Internet of things (sensors being even smaller than smartphones) and the data that emanates from all of them. And not surprisingly, CIOs are exhibiting a lot of trepidation about it all.

According to the results of a recent Gartner survey on the subject, “51 percent of CIOs are concerned that the digital torrent is coming faster than they can cope and 42 percent don’t feel that they have the talent needed to face this future.” Dave Aron, vice president and Gartner Fellow, concurs that the results reveal a difficult transition for CIOs.

First, though, some definitions. What the heck is the difference between digitization and digitalization? Having done numerous stories of companies getting rid of paper – a process which was still taking place at least a decade after consultants and journalists starting talking about it – I’m unclear on the differentiation. To his credit, Aron has thought about this. “Digitization is the process of moving what you did offline online. Digitalization is the process of exploiting digital information to maximize business success.”

Further, he notes, digitalization is not IT, but an extension of IT. “IT strategy is a technical answer to a business question. Digital strategy is a business answer to a technical question; that is, how should we change our business strategy based on technologies such as the cloud, digital currency, mobility, social, and others?”

This shift, Aron says, is what’s fueling the number of companies who’ve hired a chief digital officer. Some 7 percent of respondents to the Gartner survey have such a position in their company, but Aron acknowledges that sometimes it’s just someone in charge of digital marketing. Nevertheless, the message for CIOs is clear, Aron says: “Companies have to have good digital leadership. IT has been selling fear for too long. The digital world is selling dreams.”

CIOs, he suggests, have to navigate a middle path: pursuing digital possibilities, but with enough architectural governance from IT that chaos doesn’t ensue. Aron calls this bimodal IT, something he sees in a number of forward-thinking companies, in which IT’s focus is split between heads-down and eyes-forward. He characterizes traditional IT as working with known vendors, doing waterfall development, focusing on risk-averse governance. The other side he characterizes as “a new flavor IT – working with smaller vendor partners, focusing on agility.” The latter group should be populated by “young turks whose attitude is, ‘if it ain’t broke, break it.” says Aron.

That’s a hard management challenge, of course, and one that may lead to divisive strife in the IT organization if one group is looked upon as being more favored than another. But Aron believes that different people are attracted to different cultures within IT. It’s the CIO’s responsibility – yet another one – to ensure that the right people get assigned to the right flavor.

While Aron does not dismiss the skills challenge that comes with cutting-edge technology, he nevertheless believes that the third era of enterprise computing is a potential “dream come true” for CIOs. That is, for someone who truly loves technology, who believes in its potential, this new era is now a playground full of possibilities.

The challenge for CIOs, however, is managing this bimodal, bifurcated world and understanding not just IT strategy but digital strategy as well – if only to ensure that they’re not replaced by a chief digital officer who’s figured out digitalization first.

Email CIO Next Community Manager Howard Baldwin if you’re a CIO who wants to spout off in an opinion piece on a technology-related issuelike digital transformation.

Source: Forbes

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