IT no longer a competitive advantage: futurist

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IT no longer a competitive advantage: futurist
Every card-carrying employee should have access to their own 'big red button'.

Former tech exec ponders the future of the CIO.

Early adoption of the latest and greatest information technologies is no longer a means of gaining competitive advantage, according to futurist Jonar Nader.

The former technology executive and published author, has a confrontational presentation planned for the CIO Strategy Summit on the Gold Coast next month.

Nader believes that a complacent corporate Australia isn’t hungry enough to innovate; that most CIOs are too meek to effect change and that the very role of IT is endangered.

Since the Global Financial Crisis, Nader said organisations that were destined to fail did so, and those that survived “have good relationships with their banks and have access to the same skill-sets and technologies”.

“If everybody has access to the same tools, I don’t believe you can run to technology for advantage,” he said.

“Where once it was once sung ‘anything you can do I can do better – today it should be sung that anything you can do I can only do quicker’. The other guy will do the same thing well, and not much later than the leader.

“Competitive advantage was once described as a window of opportunity. Now it’s a door of opportunity. The only advantage is speed – but no matter how fast you are, doors of opportunity will slam shut quickly. What is required is multiple areas of advantage.”

Nader said the most IT can do today is “amplify your weakest point.”

“If you are inefficient, technology will highlight that inefficiency on a bigger scale. If you have allowed staff to be rude to customers, your web presence allows them be rude to more customers, 24 hours a day. It will amplify and broadcast it.

“If anything, technology is a curse.”

This doesn’t, however, diminish the importance of the CIO function, in Nader’s opinion.

But he feels many CIOs – and indeed the entire leadership of most organisations – are unable to execute on priorities and don’t understand their role.

Nader – a former executive at IBM and Acer – feels sympathy for those with the CIO title, executives he fears are too “exhausted and overwhelmed” to be assertive in the workplace.

He notes that there is no longer a shroud of mystery around information technology. Staff see technology in the palm of their hands in the form of smartphones and tablets and assume they can do the job of managing it better.

CIOs are not working as business managers, but instead “running the fire brigade,” he said.

‘If the forklift breaks, no one runs to the facilities manager,” he said.

“But if the mainframe or server breaks, everyone knows about it. So CIOs are paranoid. They are constantly patching things up. They have lost their clout, so much so that a lot of CIOs now report to CFOs.

“That’s about the biggest slap in the face you can get – when technology becomes a finance function.”

Nader said the role of today’s CIO is as much about networking people rather than machines. CIOs should provide the “connectivity” between IT and sales, marketing, finance and the various other departments within the organisation.

CIOs often appear too distant or unapproachable for sales or finance staff to engage meaningfully with them, he said. Often a line of business manager makes unreasonable demands of the IT team out of sheer ignorance of the effort or resources involved in making the change.

This can lead to a situation in which the CIO is only included in managerial decisions as a peripheral “expert witness” - after a sales campaign or other strategy has been decided on.

“CIOs need to become part of the business process and start acting as business managers,” he said.

Promoting cultural change

Nader’s speech at the CIO Strategy Summit will also touch on his concern for the unhealthy cultures developing within the Australian corporate sector.

“Culture is not them and us, it’s not about ethnicity or some other distinction,” he explained.

“Cultural issues are bread and butter profitability and productivity issues. A cultural issue is when an action took place and wasn’t challenged. Then that action happens again, and again, and becomes habit. In time it becomes a permissible activity – a tolerated one. Eventually it becomes invisible.

“This could range from something as simple as staff not bothering to pick up the phone or staff shouting at a customer, to something as serious as staff stealing from the company.”

Business leaders need to “do what no one likes to do,” he said, and “learn intolerance.”

But this require more than lecturing staff on poor practice. To be truly effective, it might also require a CIO to give staff permission to blow the whistle on poor practices they encounter.

The smallest unaddressed error on a website, Nader notes, points to wider issues with management and corporate culture.

“Compaq (now HP) once had 10,000 staff on a production line – and every staff member on that line had the opportunity to press a red button – a button that would immediately stop the production line,” Nader relates.

“That’s because some smart people at Compaq knew it was cheaper to lose an hour of production than send out faulty computers to all corners of the world.

“Where are the red buttons these days?”

Nader believes IT is “at the pulse” for many businesses, and has the best view of where operations are inefficient or customers are unsatisfied.

Even the lowest ranked employee should have their own red button, he said, and the right to say, ‘By the power vested in me by my employee card, I insist this problem be fixed.”

Jonar Nader will discuss competitive advantage, the role of the CIO and what it means to ‘innovate’ at the CIO Strategy Summit, August 28th-30th, Gold Coast's QT Hotel.

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