Within this past decade the spotlight has shone brightly on technology and its contributions to industry and society – revealing both positive and negative propensities in its development and deployment. Greater surgical precision a la robotics is countered by cyber-espionage and privacy apertures at international levels. Alongside these is the consumerization of technology – exacerbated by the Internet of Everything, as it were. The economy was not exempt, as the expectations arising from focused investment in national infrastructure and human capital is tempered by ‘the rise of the machine age’ – at the leading edge being lights out manufacturing and the accompanying jobless growth.

In this context it comes as no surprise that Steve Case, co-founder of AOL cum entrepreneur at the 2015 SXSW alluded to the third Internet age – which he predicts would serve to ‘accelerate disruption across all industries’ – driven in part by (r)evolution in capital and social landscapes – which will force companies to ‘adapt or die’. Dramatic? Maybe. Excessive? Well, in the casino of competitiveness, would you be willing to bet your firm on it?

 We cannot dispute the fact that the technology today is ‘disrupting market leadership’ as Porter said. Nor can we argue against its contributions on the emergence of new businesses and business processes, alongside expanding opportunities which we fully expect to be reflected in the top and bottom line values. As Marakas and O’Brien put it, ‘technology is no longer an afterthought in forming business strategy, but the actual cause and driver’. The expectations are that information systems and technology deployed within and throughout an organisation is expected to contribute to efficient business operations; enterprise-wide collaboration and more effective decision-making; and in tandem aid in no small way to make the firm more customer-driven, responsive, and generally deliver customer value centred on quality more than price or location.

Herein lays the pretty paradox. Firms are waking up to what is becoming more possible through technology, and are investing more in an attempt to realise these possibilities. Not so the function that is charged with harnessing this resource and unleashing it upon the competitive landscape. Remarkably under-resourced (after all, IT investments already account for a large share of the budget), the IT department has to get by as operations support – a caddy, if you will – and in many cases report to a cost-containment executive, charged with keep the lights on while the core business makes rain. It should come as no surprise then that projects are over scope, often fail to deliver, layers of applications sit idly by as real-time technology supports inefficient processes, and somehow training sessions on solution roll-out become exploratory discussions on workflows, with users – initially being propelled by waves of change – find themselves in a whirlpool of wonderment and despair.

This context is exacerbated by the imposition of more layers of isolation by the IT department – a help desk, a ticketing system and remote administration all serve to spur on the queries as to whether humans work in the department at all. We hear of arguments that IT does not understand the business, and counter arguments that it’s the line that has to drive change, all of which makes for entertaining meetings and underwhelming results.

To overcome this hurdle, as George Colony (CEO of Forrester Research) put it, ‘the CIO has to be a great teacher’. This extends to not only signalling to the line the current and emerging possibilities, but also digest the business strategy and craft a response that fully leverages available or applicable technology. To be clear, this goes beyond keeping the lights on. As Steve Olive (CIO of Raytheon Defence) says, ‘consistently reliable and excellent IT service should be a given. What businesses need and IT should be providing are innovative solutions to business challenges.’

What this requires is firstly effective management capability by our IT leadership. The ability to assess, plan and execute in line with business goals and objectives would serve to eliminate the cost-containment filter that tempers possible IT development. It requires a core management focus that is applied to technology as a resource. But this is not an easy feat, moving from graduates who are essentially information engineers, more adept with the mechanics of information management and technology engagement than its business applications. Consider the view that undergraduates from Computer Science departments, or practitioners with professional certifications harbour a thorough understanding of the operational continuity of the function predominantly – those who were able to make that transition demonstrate a much more broad-based exposure than core IT operations.

The second tier of development is the evolution of core IT management to the strategic level, wherein it not only maps the resource to business strategy as a whole and at the various functional executing agents, but is able to craft offensive and defensive business strategy that directly engages competitive rivalry and levers of competitiveness to propel the organisation forward. Armed with new products, aimed at new markets, and bound by data-driven decisions and a learning organisation, this level of contribution realises value-driven results within, throughout and beyond the boundaries of the firm and extending to suppliers, customers and partners. The net effect is an organisation fully-equipped today to redefine market leadership tomorrow, driven by IT Leadership 2.0.

Steve Case (SXSW 2015) predicts the Internet’s third age wherein entire sectors would undergo radical innovation due to technology diffusion and disruption. We agree. We are already working to create it.

March 2015