Enabling or Disruptive Technologies: Lessons, Risks and Issues
Our view of IT depends upon our perspective. Should we celebrate the democratisation of access to devices and various apps, and wider opportunities to participate as barriers to inclusion and competition are reduced, or be concerned about the loss of control of personal data, what organisations know about us and a concentration of rewards of entrepreneurship?
In themselves, information technologies are neutral. Whether they help us or harm us depends upon how we use them, who uses them, and for what purpose. We can use them to improve existing activities or to enable new business models.
Paul Strassman, a serial CIO, suggested the overall impact of early IT was also neutral [1; 2]. Well run businesses tended to be helped and to become more competitive. Badly run and struggling businesses tended to be harmed and to become even worse. In some organisations, people seem to spend all day sending each other email rather than sorting issues.
The potential for either helpful or harmful impacts is reflected in debates, for example, about whether the wider adoption of AI will increase or reduce employment? In reality it is likely to do both, creating opportunity for some and providing a challenge for others.
Within Xerox we had working AI environments in the 1980s. I recall visiting Cambridge University to find out how they were using our gift of AI workstations and software. I was told one benefit was leaving the machines on overnight, which kept damp off the walls.
If certain environments and applications developed at Xerox PARC could have been rolled out, they would have transformed how we work and learn. The potential of AI seems to be forever ahead of our willingness and ability to sensibly employ it. AI also appears to be forever accompanied by debates concerning the ability to control applications of it that can independently learn and evolve.
Features or consequences of IT are often double-edged. There is the paradox of people being more connected via social media while also being physically and psychologically more isolated. The convenience of further connectivity is accompanied by additional risks.
The Internet of Things opens new doors of vulnerability. People being too busy to update their software with new patches keeps these doors open for longer. The global criminal community is a major beneficiary of IT. According to Michael McGuire of the University of Surrey in a report for Bromium, the global cybercrime economy is now worth $1.5 TN .
Cyber criminals win hands down when it comes to operating flexibly and quickly changing to take advantage of new opportunities and technologies. Corporate procurement processes with their requirements for board approval, invitations to tender, consultant selection, project planning, budgeting and roll out implementation ensure their targets are usually way behind.
Boards, governance arrangements and collective decision making are all struggling to cope. Governments and regulators are also playing catch up.
Building higher defences may be good business for IT suppliers, but at some point will a critical mass of people and organisations collaborate to counter-attack? Might there be greater use of AI and other technologies to assess, predict, identify and respond to threats? Will those who are wary of surveillance, sharing information and Government monitoring support the steps needed to succeed? In the privacy versus security debate, can one have both?
Missed opportunities are legion. Visions of the transformational use of IT can be quickly killed by a few words of caution to an insecure decision maker. Where Government is involved, a budget can be cut when more has to be spent on other and current activities.
I recall the prospect of a network to enable new approaches to learning across London’s Docklands quickly disappearing. Just before a meeting to give in principle approval the Development Corporation was told it would need to pick up further infrastructure costs.
Innovation is often agonisingly slow and more talked about than practiced. Many boards are risk averse and influenced by vested interests. They protect existing activities rather than enable new business models.
Until relatively recently, some boards of retail chains were still approving long-term rental agreements with landlords. Retail stores have succumbed in droves to on-line rivals, yet in the 1980s certain natives in remote jungles sold their craft wares over the internet.
Innovations that do occur are often slow to spread. This can be particularly evident in areas of the public sector where many years can pass before a seemingly obvious innovation is adopted. Individuals and entrepreneurs often move much more quickly than organisations.
When chairing awards for innovation in electronic commerce and e-business I found one winning team from the NHS largely imitating a previous winner they had not heard off. The earlier innovators had moved on and their successors had reverted to previous practice.
In the 1990s I led a project for the European Commission to develop a European approach to re-engineering. We encountered a lazy and self-interested preference for improvement rather than transformation, particularly in monopolies and public bodies.
There was also a noticeable penchant for mega projects. Although again these were good business for suppliers of IT, some projects seemed doomed to fail from the beginning. Even if they were eventually delivered, by then the requirement would probably have moved on.
While process vision holder of complex transformation projects as energy markets opened up, I encountered a willingness to spend millions on new suites of processes and systems that were largely the same as those used by most competitors, but a reluctance to spend relatively small sums on practical performance support tools that would quickly transform how people undertook difficult jobs, differentiate and deliver multiple other benefits for both them and the organisations concerned, while providing huge returns on investment [4, 5, 6].
Too often, IT suppliers push their own particular systems and overly large, complex, time consuming and disruptive projects. They exaggerate their advantages and play down their limitations. They encourage dependence and secure multi-year income streams.
The least understanding of IT is sometimes found in boardrooms. Insecure directors do not know to whom to turn for independent and objective advice. They play it safe by opting for widely used offerings from established suppliers. They overlook more imaginative, cheaper and flexible options that would differentiate them without ‘locking them in’.
One Middle Eastern bank listened to my advice. They reduced the number of proposed projects. By just focusing on visible and easily updated steps to transform the experience of clients they quickly obtained a high market share of high-value customers.
Departmental corporate structures often prevent people from seeing the inter-relatedness of issues and events. Individual IT projects and other issues are considered in isolation.
I once ran a session for 40 senior people from Kodak at Chewton Glen. While aware of digital photography, as the market leader for film many of the participants were supremely confident. Some 8,800 quality improvement projects were underway across the corporation.
I gave them an exercise to identify and prioritise the issues or developments in the business environment that would determine whether the company lived or died. We got to issue eleven before one of the functional heads present claimed a related project group. Needless to say this then corporate giant quickly became a bit player as chemicals gave way to digital.
Many inter-related challenges and opportunities are not addressed because CEOs and boards do not have a single department or an objective and trusted adviser to refer them to, and/or a collective or collaborative response is needed. IT governance and decision making needs to improve. We must think longer-term and be more flexible, responsible and practical.
Responsible leaders and providers focus on the interests of an organisation and its customers and other stakeholders. They also take account of life-time, end-of-life, crawl-out and transition costs when taking decisions or advocating solutions.
Given the challenges faced by mankind there are many opportunities that can be pursued without exploiting insecurity and/or ignorance. We need lifestyle changes and innovative and sustainable IT applications that address environmental and climate change challenges.
Many people are increasingly dependent upon IT. Generation gaps in understanding and its use have emerged and are evolving. Young people around the world are worried about the implications of our use of finite resources .
Will information technologies as we know them survive? Will there be enough rare minerals to enable future mobile and other devices to be built?
Unless innovation occurs, will our children and grand-children have to scavenge for rare minerals in thrown away devices in dumps of our rubbish during extreme weather events? Will we exercise restraint today to transform their tomorrows?