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MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, which took place Wednesday at MIT.
The boss certainly expects IT to move quickly. "Agility is critical," said Tom Leighton, CEO of Akamai, during a panel on the CEO's perspective and influence on innovation. That comment was echoed by the other CEOs on the panel, Kazuhiro Gomi of NTT America, and BlazeMeter founder and CEO Alon Girmonsky, who put it starkly, "not being agile means you simply die, you simply vanish. You need a process, an ecosystem to support agility."
Driving that need for agility is the pace of technological change. CIOs on various panels repeatedly expressed the pain that comes with having to support business needs that are emerging so rapidly that tools don't exist to support them.
[ And don't forget about security concerns. Read Should CIOs Hire Cyber Pinkertons? ]
In healthcare, the entire business model is shifting from paying for treatment to paying for keeping people out of the hospital in the first place. "We have no idea how to keep patients well," said John Halamka, CIO at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, during a panel on healthcare IT. He said BIDMC expects to spend $7 million this year developing systems to support care management. That money won't be going to established vendors in healthcare systems, because they don't offer packages aimed at care management.
It's one thing to be in an industry going through a specific shift. But technologies can slip out of vogue quick enough to give a CIO whiplash. Big data, for instance, looked halfway to the grave in some sessions. CIOs on one panel, looking beyond big data, argued that the phrase is becoming meaningless. "I've trademarked the phrase 'gargantuan data,'" joshed Tom Davenport, a Harvard Business School professor who moderated the panel.
"We've moved on. We just look at it as data, just a richer set of data," said Annabelle Bexiga, the CIO of TIAA-CREF. In particular, TIAA-CREF is working on how to work with unstructured data sets.
"I look at it like the telegraph," she said. "You can convey a message with telegraph but a phone call is a richer conversation. Same thing with data. If you're going to look at data without considering all the unstructured data in the future you're only going to have half the story."
Part of Big Data's problem is it hasn't had the expected impact. That's because results don't just come from technology. "The reality is it's not simply a revolution in technology," said Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at The Sloan School and director of MIT's Center for Digital Business. "To be successful [with big data] there needs to be a revolution in management and decision making and marketing and manufacturing, ultimately a revolution in our culture and the way we make decisions. So far that hasn't been happening in the way it needs to happen."
So CIOs can be forgiven for not changing the world just yet.
But it will change. Broadcom CIO William Miller, Jr. told Information Week that his company gathers petabytes of data on the simulations it runs when developing new products. It has done little with that data in the past, but as chips get denser and more expensive to develop, Broadcom is using that data to help change its process.
"I can start laying out future chips in time with necessary resources to be optimally productive," Miller said. "Maybe if I schedule resources differently I can build more chips. But if I can't mine that dataset from the past, I'm not as smart going forward."
He also said that he wants to get to the point where individual users can easily access all that data and parse it for themselves. That democratizing of data is something he thinks will be hugely important for companies.
"Hell no, I'm not there today! If anybody tells you they're there today, they're probably trying to sell you software that does this," Miller said.
CIOs need to expect that we'll get there, said Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT's Center for Digital Business, co-sponsor of the CIO Symposium. He concluded the day's events by telling the 700 or so attendees that these are the early stages of a new Machine Age that will rival the impact of the first Machine Age, following the development of the steam engine.
CIOs also need to brace themselves. McAfee put up a slide showing that only a third of companies that were prominent in 1905 maintained their market leadership after the end of what he called the Trust era. He thinks the same will happen to companies now.
"We're going to see pretty parallel levels of disruption going on, country after country, sector after sector," McAfee said.
CIOs, then, need to be as agile as Eliza in Uncle Tom's Cabin, jumping from ice floe to ice floe to cross the Ohio River.