The CIO’s broadening role: Business strategist, futurist, change agent

By Divina Paredes Aug 17th 2017

Robin Johansen on why CIOs should prepare for the impact of political and economic developments across the globe.

If you introduce a new technology, there can be a political blowback - global, national, or within the company.

“Be prepared for anything,” says Robin Johansen, as he sums up a critical mindset for today’s CIOs.

Johansen was CIO at Beca, the engineering and consulting group, for 13 years and now works with a range of organisations as an independent ICT strategist and consultant.

Now based in Nelson, on the South Island of New Zealand, Johansen sees the CIO role in the digital era as becoming very broad.

He says that with computing assets and services increasingly being delivered from geographically diverse locations, CIOs have to work through both a big picture and local perspective of the market, and how these will impact their role, their teams and their respective organisation and sector.

“From a technology standpoint, we have got an absolute explosion going on. The development of new technologies is just breathtaking,” says Johansen, who is currently looking at distributed ledgers or blockchain as a “potentially massive technology.”

Concurrent with this, there is enormous global turbulence, politically, economically and socially. “There are some real issues emerging, which are partly to do with and will be exacerbated by technology.”

He says one of these is inequality arising from the disappearance of jobs due to automation and other disruptive technologies.

These new technologies are very radically and rapidly changing the nature of work, and what is coming out from various reports is we are destroying more jobs than we are creating, says Johansen.

In the past, he says, the jobs that disappeared due to technology were replaced by new jobs, “so there was a balance.”

“That is no longer the case.”

He believes this issue translates into politics in Europe and the United States, where discussions are heightened around tightening borders for migrants, slowing the movement of jobs offshore and the possible introduction of new tariffs or trade sanctions.

“That is moving away from globalisation and yet, so many of the systems we have set up in the past 20 years, depend on globalisation,” he states.

“If you think just about cloud computing, a lot of people are dependent on cloud services that are not based in their own country. ”

He says cybersecurity is a particular concern as there is now a lot of sophistication around recent cyber incidents.

“There seems to be strong evidence of state players messing with electronics systems,” he says, referring to the the current discussion on the alleged meddling by Russia in the recent US elections.

“If you can do that for an election, it is not a big step from there to start a completely different sort of warfare. What if you broke into the electrical transmission systems of a nation and just disrupted them without firing a shot, then you will have completely unsettled that environment?”

Closer to home, in the Asia Pacific, he cites North Korea as a rogue state that is “behaving very badly”, while China is extending its reach through the South China sea. As well, both nations have been accused of participation in state sponsored cyber attacks.

There is a real danger in having a focus on the business outcomes and the technology without having an adequate focus on the people

Robin Johansen

“It is easy to dismiss these cyber threats as applying only to national security, but recent ransomware attacks have shown just how vulnerable many organisations can be.

“CIOs have got to be aware of these developments when they are conceiving their IT systems.

“It is all very well having ‘everything in the cloud’ but ‘what if’ is the question modern CIOs need to think through,” he says, as well as “to have a fallback or a response, and to remain agile.”

He sees CIOs having to make some big decisions in an incredibly turbulent period, both socially and politically.

“If you introduce a new technology, there can be a political blowback - global, national, or within the company.”

The government may act to slow down or stop adoption of a technology.

For example, he says, there is talk about introducing taxes for automation as conventional employment declines and reduces the government revenue from taxes. “What if that led to the imposition of new taxes on cloud based services from a particular geography?”

For New Zealand CIOs, there is the concern about how to respond in case of events such as earthquakes.

“How resilient will this system be if my world changes? Can you shift quickly? How vulnerable to cyberattack is this system I am creating?”

Thus, Johansen says CIOs also have to think like futurists, more than ever.

He notes another development is appointment of CIOs who do not necessarily come from a strong technology background.

“They are good managers with a strong business sense and reliant on others to fill in the gaps from a technology.

“That is fine provided you have a good technology team behind you,” he says.

“We are entering an era when a CIO’s technical experience may be limited to updating their smartphone or tablet and think that an enterprise upgrade should be no more taxing. They do not necessarily understand the complexity and have little motivation to be better informed.”

“The problem is if you have got someone who is making decisions without any of that understanding, a salesperson can set him or her up a wonderful deal that will bite the organisation in three years.”

Champion of change

“On the day-to-day business, I see too often technology roaring ahead without taking the people with it, and these include customers and suppliers.”

Johansen says he had done recent work assessing one such project with a company.

The business technology project was implemented, but the people were not adequately involved in the planning and deployment.

The project failed to deliver and cost the company a lot of money. The people also did not want to be bothered by the complexity of the new system, as they questioned, ‘what is in it for me?’

He says industry analysts have been highlighting how digital transformation is a journey "where you have to take the people with you".

"There is a real danger in having a focus on the business outcomes and the technology without having an adequate focus on the people," he says.

“The other thing is agility,” he says. “This way, you can quickly adopt and adapt to whatever threats and opportunities come along.”

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