CXO Leadership

The CIO as a Futurist

The CIO as a Futurist

To thrive in the role of a CIO, one must simultaneously deal with the problems of today and monitor industry trends. Striking a balance between these time horizons enables a CIO to seize both business and technology opportunities. In this article, we are going to challenge and expand the horizon for CIOs, using the techniques of futurists.

What is a futurist?

A futurist is someone who systematically explores possibilities about the future. This field has evolved from making bold (and usually incorrect) predictions about the future to instead exploring why and how various future situations could emerge.

Systematic exploration of possibilities can benefit a company in several ways. First, it could focus Research & Development (R&D) efforts so that resources are assigned according to potential. Even small and medium companies should provide time and money for a team of wonderers to explore the future.

Systematic explorations also could provide first mover opportunities that enable a company to be first to market. The pivot of Amazon into web services is a recent example. Amazon wanted an effective way to scale its technology stack for on-demand computing. In solving this problem, they identified a new  market and commercialized it. The result became Amazon Web Services (AWS), which continues as the dominant provider at 31 percent of the market.

Finally, the Association of Professional Futurists (APF)  identify 6 analytical processes that futurists use to help organizations. For example, a futurist uses the technique of framing, which is to describe a current situation in a deliberate and structured method. A futurist can comb through information and filter, connect, and make sense of it. The results of a systematic exploration then must be communicated effectively so that the consumers of the results can understand the information and make decisions based on it.

A second process is visioning. This is a challenge to conventional thinking that places primacy on the “way things are” rather than the “way things could be.” An example where visioning could have helped occurred in the mid-1990s – just prior to the cell phone revolution. In the United States, the Baby Bells were the sole providers of telephone services. Executives at one particular Baby Bell eschewed a future that did not include “land lines” for everyone. In 2004, 90 percent of American households had land lines. Fifteen years later, that market had shrunk by 60 percent.

A third process in the futurist toolkit is designing and this enables people to experience a tangible experience of what is to come. Through immersive environments, futurists facilitate learning in interpersonal and experiential events.  The goal is to improve the understanding of actions that can be taken today that have a future impact.

Systematic exploration of the future

In her book, Bridge Makers: Becoming a Citizen Futurist, April Reagan describes two primary skills in learning to think like a futurist. First, she explains that we need to “learn to look.” This involves scanning for signals (where to look), understanding our biases when we look at signals, and checking horizons, specifically the Three Horizons approach advocated by the International Futures Forum (IFF).

Reagan describes two types of scanning: passive and active. Passive scanning is an awareness of trends, changes, or novelties within a person’s daily activities. For example, the first generation of Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) only allowed cash withdrawals. Over time, the services expanded to checking  deposits and other banking services. Now banking mobile apps provide even more features. The result is a 14 percent decline in the number of bank branches between 2010 and 2021 in the U.S.

In addition to passive scanning of everyday situations, Reagan recommends active scanning to aid in the systematic exploration of possibilities. For example, attending an exposition such as the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) or commissioning a futurist workshop will engage and challenge your organization. Other examples are social media, websites, and podcasts to stay up to date on the topic.

Some resources to begin are listed below:

The role of the CIO

Prominent futurists advocate that anyone can learn skills and mindsets to systematically explore possibilities. The CIO and Information Technology team are at the forefront of technology innovation due to constant advances in technology. With a shift in horizon and awareness, along with developing scanning skills, CIOs can become an important resource to bring futurism to their organizations and into their strategy conversations. This could help the organization determine its future.

Resources to explore

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Jeff Cann

Jeff Cann, Chief Information Officer, Encore Electric

Jeff has a diverse background of more than 20 years in information technology spanning basic research, software and system engineering, enterprise architecture, IT Operations, Service Desk, program and project management, and business consu... More   View all posts


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