Special Report - The 3 Trends IT Can't Ignore

By Daniel Burrus

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No one knows better than the CIO and IT department how quickly technology is evolving. For that reason, it’s imperative that CIOs be focusing not just on the changes that are happening today, but also on the technological trends that are emerging and shaping the future of your company and your industry.

Why? Because the more anticipatory you can be in regard to technology and how to creatively use it for competitive advantage, the more the IT department will be seen as a strategic partner in the organization’s future.

As someone who has been accurately predicting the future of technology for over 25 years, I urge all CIOs to focus on the following three trends that are emerging and reshaping the business landscape as we know it:

Just-in-time training

Thanks to cloud-based technology, we’re on the brink of a revolution in just-in-time training (JITT). This will enable people to use their laptops, cell phones, and tablet computers as a tool to receive training precisely when they need it. In the current training model used by many organizations, people receive training for a variety of things before they actually need the expertise, thus taking the people away from their jobs and costing the company a lot of money.

With just-in-time training, companies can keep people in the field without the specific training. Then, when the person needs a certain skill set to complete a job or do a task, he or she can receive the training for it in real time via cloud-based technology.

For example, suppose your company specializes in selling and repairing commercial HVAC units. There a number of different units your repair staff needs to know how to fix. But rather than taking your people out of work and putting them in a multi-day training course, you keep them in the field without the specific training. When they have to repair a unit they are not familiar with, they can receive the training on how to fix it in real time via their mobile device as they are servicing the unit.

This approach cuts training costs dramatically but it does not mean the company eliminates all pre-training (training that occurs before there is a need for the knowledge or skill). There are some things all employees need to know in advance. But rather than rely solely on the pre-training model, the company can do some pre-training but do most of the training on demand as needed.

Let’s take this trend a step further. Suppose the commercial HVAC repair person is onsite, servicing something he’s never worked on before. He uses the JITT module via his tablet computer -- but he’s still confused about a certain aspect of the repair. All he has to do is touch the “Help” icon on his screen and it immediately connects him to a master trainer live on the screen. But instead of just telling the master trainer what the problem is, the repair person can put on a headband that has a camera on the front (much like the headlights people use for camping).

By wearing this digital, high-resolution camera that interfaces with the mobile device, the repair person can show the master trainer exactly what the issue is. Now that master trainer can see what the repair person sees and can tell him exactly what to do. The master trainer can lead the repair person through the repair as if he were standing right there with the repair person ...

Talk about a dramatic savings and increase in efficiency!

But it won’t stop there.

Rather than using this cloud-based technology only for JITT, companies will also be able to use it for just-in-time emergency service. For example, let’s say your company sold some heavy equipment to a customer in Italy. One of those machines has a problem and now it’s down and needs to be repaired. But the nearest service technician is in the United States. In order to fly the technician to Italy at a moment’s notice, you have to invest both time and money. Additionally, during the coordination and travel time, the machine is down at your customer’s location, costing them time and money as well.With cloud-based technology, you can use a similar system to just-in-time training where you turn your customer into your technician. You simply tell them to put on the camera headband that came with the equipment. Then your master technician can direct the customer where to look, what to open, what to touch, etc. Now you’re using the customer as your eyes, ears, and hands in real time, servicing them anywhere in the world. This simple technology can save the company tremendous amounts of time and money, all while helping the customer immediately.

Realize that using cloud-based technology for just-in-time services goes way beyond repair. It could be used to train people on new software, train salespeople on product upgrades, instruct employees on new policies and procedures, etc. And it’s different and better than a standard tutorial, because the training can be accessed via any device, anywhere, and at anytime … and it offers an option for live help. Think of it like a help desk on steroids.

So, in reality, the applications for cloud-based, just-in-time services are virtually limitless.

While this may seem like an HR initiative, it’s really up to the CIO to spearhead the effort. Remember that anytime you talk about the use of technology, the initiative has to be driven by the people who understand what can be done. So even though HR would use this technology, they would never drive the initiative because they don’t know what’s technically possible. Therefore, it’s up to the CIO.

But this is a good thing, because by driving technologies such as this, the CIO adds strategic value to the organization. Anytime you can look at the future and the evolution of technology and see what can be done or how to use technology to increase efficiency, lower costs, or provide new products and services, you’ll be viewed as a highly-valued member of the C-suite.

Processing power on demand

The increased bandwidth that our mobile devices now receive enables us to connect to the cloud-based technologies easier and faster than ever before. And one thing we know about bandwidth is that it will continue to increase. Because of this, we’ll soon be able to take advantage of another trend that I call processing power on-demand, or virtualized processing power.

We have already virtualized so many things it only makes sense, that processing power will be virtualized, too. In other words, a mobile device only has a certain amount of processing power. But if you can tap into additional processing power via cloud-based technology, you can turn your mobile device into a super computer where you can do advanced simulations and crunch different data streams together to get real time analytics. Now your handheld device is as powerful and advanced as your desktop.

Imagine the increase in productivity if each of your company’s employees had the capability to do complex work that required advanced processing power while they were on the road, armed with nothing more than their mobile device. What would that shift do to your company’s bottom line?

Creative application of technology

For both of these trends and others to fully emerge, CIOs have to consider what their people would do with the technology. It’s no longer enough to just deploy technology; CIOs also need to consider how they can creatively apply the technology to their company in order to gain competitive advantage.

This is certainly a major mindset shift for many organizations, since most CIOs and IT departments have historically been viewed as the implementers. But today, that’s not enough. You need to show the C-suite how you can creatively apply any technology and maximize its use. Therefore, you need to go to your internal customers (all the people using the technology in the enterprise) and ask what they want technologically.

By all means, give them what they ask for, but realize that they will under-ask because they don’t know what’s technically possible. So while you want to listen to what people in the organization are asking for realize that what they’re not asking for is the bigger and better capabilities -- the things they don’t even know are possible.

The key is to go to the next level and give people the ability to do what they currently can’t do, but would want to do, if they only knew they could. After all, people really didn’t ask for an iPhone or a Blackberry. The hidden need was the ability to access their email and internet without being tied to their desktop or laptop. Similarly, people didn’t ask for an iPad or for app-driven TV, but that’s where we’re going because someone is asking what would people really want to do.This is about putting existing technologies together and using them in a creative way. So, for IT, this is about creatively applying the tools you already have. After all, it’s not always the tool, but how you use it. For example, some people can pick up the telephone, have a short conversation, and make a million dollars. Other people can pick up the telephone, have a short conversation, and lose a million dollars.

The difference is not the phone; it’s what the person said on the phone -- how they used the tool. Therefore, the creative application of the tool is often more important than the tool itself.

As you likely know, there are literally thousands of features in Microsoft Word that you can select. Most people are using only seven to ten features. And your competitors are using the same features, which means you’re not getting any true competitive advantage. So IT needs to ask, “What features would be great for our sales group [or HR, or accounting department, or logistics people, etc.] to use -- features that are so buried in the software that no one knows they exist?”

Most IT departments don’t ask those questions because they’re too busy making sure everything is connected, working well, and safe.

But there’s another vital role that IT must undertake -- the creative application of tools so your company can gain competitive advantage from the tools you already have. Who in your organization is working on that? Who is looking at the tools you already have and asking if they are being underused? Chances are the answer is, “No one.” As such, it’s safe to say that all your tools are underutilized.

Therefore, you need to implement a communication vehicle that engages the different groups you serve in the enterprise such as sales, logistics, purchasing, accounting, HR, etc. and you need to engage them in helping them understand the power of the tools they have access to.

One suggestion is to automatically show them a “feature of the day” and how it can make their life easier. This is about giving them information in short, fun, engaging ways rather than a hundred-page document detailing all the features (which no one will read anyway). Some software programs have such features where you get a tip per day. Perhaps you can customize that idea and apply it internally so that the different groups get information tailored specifically to them and their needs.

Many CIOs and others in the IT department will say they are too busy to address any of these trends. They’re too busy to look at just-in-time training, processing power on demand, or the creative application of existing tools. But if you don’t drive the initiatives, your competition will.

Ultimately, whoever drives these trends within an organization will be perceived as a significant contributor to the enterprise, i.e., someone worth keeping and someone with a high value in the marketplace. That’s why the CIO should own these initiatives and bring value to the organization as it relates to selecting and implementing technology, as well as how the company uses it. In this way, the CIO can drive results to the bottom line and be a key contributor to the organization’s success.

Daniel Burrus is considered one of the world’s leading technology forecasters and business strategists, and is the founder and CEO of Burrus Research, a research and consulting firm that monitors global advancements in technology driven trends to help clients better understand how technological, social and business forces are converging to create enormous, untapped opportunities. He is the author of six books, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal best seller Flash Foresight: How To See the Invisible and Do the Impossible as well as the highly acclaimed Technotrends.