IT Reloaded: The Other Side of the Fence

According to economist W. Brian Arthur, Citibank professor at the Santa Fe Institute, "This country's one and only economic driver for the next several decades rests solely in the hands of CIOs." That's a bold statement and one that seems to fly right in the face of the IT Doesn't Matter Anymore mindset. In an interview with CIO magazine, Arthur's observation is that digital technologies go beyond automating, and create fundamental changes:

As different industries encounter digital technology, which includes telecommunications and satellites, the pattern seems to be that completely new activities spring to life. It's not about speed and productivity enhancements, better, faster, cheaper. There are actual new tasks being accomplished.

As an example, he uses the biological sciences, where digital technology isn't just automating old processes, but enabling completely new things like gene mapping or DNA fingerprinting. He points to the financial services industry and new products like financial derivatives are possible only through digital technology.

Arthur envisions CIOs in an active, rather than a passive role:

What CIOs need to do is, number one, realize what's going on. Then, they can't just react passively and say, "Yes, the people upstairs have demanded that we be in constant contact with Frankfurt or Boise, Idaho." They must imagine how all of this should happen in a reliable and intelligent way, and initiate it themselves.

This is a huge challenge for CIOs because not only does it require understanding trends and then applying those to the business, but it also requires selling everyone else on that vision. Believe me, most people won't see the vision over a short time frame. To paraphrase Proverbs: Where there is not vision the people and their CIO perish.

In the article, Arthur talks about digital technologies forming the "nervous system" of the enterprise. He's really talking about the real time enterprise where instrumentation and systems combine to give everyone the information they need to make the right decision in real time. Web services provide a means for accomplishing the integration that Arthur envisions piecemeal, without breaking the bank.