21 Sep 2010
Towards the middle of this decade, the first true members of the internet generation, whose lives and perceptions of technology have been entirely shaped by the internet, will enter the workforce. As this generation enter adulthood and become consumers in their own right, they will expect the organisations around them to interact with them with the same level of sophistication as they interact with their friends. This new generation of future customers, employees and policymakers will place greater demands on organisations technology than any before it.
To this age group, there is no artificial distinction between consumer technology and business technology. But to what extent is this the case within organisations? The increasing consumerisation of IT is already creating tension between employees and management. Europeans expectations of technology in the workplace are increasing. According to a recent study by Accenture, 39 percent of 18-27 year-olds in the Netherlands view technology as essential when choosing an employer, with the UK and Belgium following closely behind. Meanwhile, there is increasing evidence that as consumers, young people gravitate towards organisations that can provide them with the multi-channel service they expect – but are companies moving fast enough for them?
For their part, CIOs find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Having built their careers in highly controlled IT environments, where uniformity was key, they now find themselves in a socially connected world where uniformity is a byword for obsolescence. Such a quality is unacceptable as speed to market, global competitiveness and seamless customer service increasingly separates the winners from the rest.
So what are the three main lessons CIOs can learn?
Lesson one: the user experience is key
Touchscreen phones, 3D movies and high-definition TV were scarcely heard of five years ago but are now regular features of most teenagersí lives. The business desktop PC, with its keyboard, display and mouse, on the other hand, has hardly changed in three decades and is well overdue an upgrade.
Fans of Wii gaming consoles, touchscreen phones and 3D cinema offer some clues about the future direction of computing. They show how accelerometers, haptics (artificial tactile feedback technologies) and 3D displays are transforming the way people interact with technology. Smartphone apps are only the tip of the iceberg. It’s only a matter of time before we start to see desktop systems that ship with gloves or wands instead of keyboards and mice, and boast 3D displays rather than conventional monitors. Likewise, the touchscreen smartphone will become the de facto means of communicating with consumers: applications will need to be able to function effectively on both mobiles and the desktop if they are to deliver real business benefit.
CIOs need to be working now to modernise their applications for mobile access, Web access, and touch screen functionality: these new user experiences will place huge demands on IT infrastructure. Managing this won’t require servers and storage to be replaced wholesale, but incremental modernisation will be needed if CIOs are to avoid scrambling to re-engineer applications once these capabilities do hit the mainstream.
Lesson two: devices shouldn’t present barriers
As business devices draw increasingly on consumer technologies, so too will user expectations that they can use their own laptops, smartphones and other gadgets at work. Simply legislating against it won’t be enough – CIOs now have to plan on the basis that people will use their own technology for business purposes. They need to make sure users can access the data they need, using whatever device they want, while keeping security tight.
New technologies can help CIOs address the problem of securing data across ubiquitous, non-uniform devices. An approach Unisys has developed draws on a process called micro-perimeterisation, which establishes security zones around virtualised data. These zones are protected with military grade encryption and tightly govern which data is available to whom. Such technology affords users access to data from any hardware, in any location, with total security – the moment they disconnect from the company network, any information held locally is scrambled.
Virtualisation and cloud computing also offer promise in preventing corporate IT environments from becoming infected by common viruses and malware found on consumer devices. By locating business applications and operating systems on secure virtual servers, totally isolated from users personal environments, CIOs can gain the control and security they need, without limiting choice.
In fact, the possibilities of virtualisation and cloud computing raise a fundamental question about the future of IT: is there really any need for organisations to provide standard hardware for their employees?
The answer is a firm no. We are seeing more companies experiment with giving employees digital allowances to buy the laptop or smartphone of their choice. Such schemes are likely to be appealing to prospective employees, can keep IT assets off the organisations balance sheet, and open the door to the final lesson CIOs can learn from teenagers: collaboration.
Lesson three: businesses must be instinctively collaborative to win
The effectiveness of social sites as engines of creativity and collaboration cannot be denied. One need only to look at the Red Crossí Haiti earthquake campaign via Twitter, which raised over $35m in less than two days, for an idea of its potential in delivering new ideas to the marketplace and unlocking value immediately.
For organisations to take advantage of this potential, they will need to fundamentally revise how they interact with the outside world – with customers, partners, suppliers and potential employees. The three years rapid growth of social media has blurred the dividing lines between the business and the outside world. In so doing, these innovations raise important questions about how organisations interact with customers, partners and suppliers, recruit staff, and innovate.
CIOs need to be thinking now about creating private social environments, where people can hook up with like-minded colleagues and work together on their mutual interests. They also need to take action to facilitate similar relationships with customers and other stakeholders outside the organisation. It is high time CIOs reversed policies blocking access to social sites. Now is the time for companies to gain mastery of these new means of communication, for they will soon become the platform for almost every aspect of operations.
It is hard to overstate just how much today’s teenagers – tomorrow’s consumers and employees – will transform the business landscape over the coming decades. Their expectations may be high, but acting on their lessons can help organisations transform the way they work with their customers, launch better ideas more quickly, and reduce costs. The CIO has a pivotal role to play in helping make their ideas a reality; now is the time to take up the challenge.