Think Tank

When I was 5 years old, I remember speculating on what life would be like in 2000, when I'd be middle-aged and my life half over.

I'd gaze at the moon and imagine I'd be living on it by then. I also anticipated I'd have a wife and a couple of kids, so I wasn't all wrong.

Eventually, we members of the Future Futurists of America got together and agreed to hedge our bets after we saw what happened to Jeane Dixon's predictions for the new year back in 1972. It wasn't pretty when even The National Enquirer started tracking what percentage of Jeane's bold statements actually came to pass.

Luckily for me, no one has ever held me accountable for my less-than-accurate predictions. (Or perhaps because I change jobs and e-mail addresses fairly often, their messages just haven't caught up with me yet.) I hesitate to admit that I, like all sane futurists, fudged things a bit and embedded predictions into wise remarks about the drivers of future change.

I'd prefer to make predictions now about things that the average American really cares about, such as when Dick Clark will stop looking like a 39-year-old, but my editor wants me to prophesize on the future of information and technology in business. I will grudgingly comply, although it will probably ruin my chances that the Enquirer will pick up this story.

The future as I see it depends on how certain questions about information, IT and business are answered (that's my hedge). These questions are so critical that, if they are answered by citizens of the Future State in ways other than what I predict, then all bets are off. I will also leave unspecified the time frame in which the answers to these questions will come to pass. If you're reading this 20 years from now and the things I predict haven't happened yet, just be patient and wait awhile longer. You've got to admit, it's a clever strategy.

Here are my questions:

WILL THERE ALWAYS BE A CIO ROLE? I don't think so. At the turn of the last century, we had vice presidents of electrification to manage how electricity was introduced into an organization. We needed CIOs for the early days of fitting computers into a company, but it won't last. We will continue to need people who manage the organization's informational and intellectual assets, but they'll be called chief knowledge officers or senior vice presidents of organizational learning and intelligence. Most audiences find the word knowledge to be more interesting and glamorous than information, so perhaps in a few years we will all be managing wisdom. (Just in case, I'm thinking of copyrighting the term wisdom management.) WILL WE BUY LESS TECHNOLOGY IN THE FUTURE? Absolutely. Let's face it-very little that we do requires the power of current technologies. It also appears likely that microprocessors will eventually cease their relentless march toward doing all the world's calculations in 14 nanoseconds. When the circuitry can't get any smaller or faster, we'll have a lot fewer reasons to buy it.

WHO WILL RUN COMPUTERS AND NETWORKS? Outsourcing may have waxed and waned over the past decade, but it will inevitably be the rule over time. There is little competitive advantage to be gained from running the best data center or the best darn network. "Netsourcing," or the provision of IT applications over the Internet or other networks, will accelerate the trend (despite its uncanny resemblance to timesharing!). In a few years, CIOs will rarely see or touch the computers, routers, fiber-optic lines or other devices that provide information and processing cycles. The idea of managing your own data center will seem as foreign as owning your own proprietary power plant. Even the PCs we use will often be owned, configured and serviced by someone else. And as far as I'm concerned, it's a good thing that we will soon see the last of corporate IS types walking around with screwdrivers in their pockets.

WHAT WILL STRUCTURE OUR WORK? There's little doubt that computers are increasingly capable of presenting us with the information and knowledge we need to do daily tasks. The less creative the work, the more likely that is already true. For example, a majority of telemarketing workers today probably have their work structured by computer-driven scripts. Unless something changes, that process will begin to structure the work lives of stockbrokers, customer service representatives, and even systems analysts and managers. It will undoubtedly make the work process more efficient, but I for one simply don't want to take orders from a computer about what I should do next. I'm happy to use it as a tool, but I want to be the general contractor, the information integrator, the control program.

WILL TECHNOLOGY HELP US WORK MORE HOURS OR LESS? Ever the optimist, I'm voting for less. I think we'll start to realize soon that information technology has thus far only made us work more. Unlike wiser Europeans, we Americans have taken the results of our productivity gains not in leisure but in increased consumption, making us have to work even harder to pay for it all. And IT has been our willing partner, allowing us to work at home, on vacation and in the car at any time of day. We now work longer hours than any other nation on earth. Shouldn't there be more to life?

WILL IT CONTINUE TO EVOLVE AS RAPIDLY? Probably not. I think we're living in a time in which IT has had an amazing run. But energy usually shifts from one technology to another. Much of the money and talent chasing IT will probably move to other technologies-biological or materials or even agricultural-and most likely some combination of all of them.

WILL THE INTERNET HYPE EVER END? Yes, mercifully, but only to a degree. All major new technologies have had overly positive hype associated with them at the beginning, and eventually something else comes along. After all, just a few of us still subscribe to Telegraph World (I read it only on airplanes). It's already clear that e-business is just good business. The pace of Internet adoption will be so rapid that it will be a well-established aspect of business in a couple more years. But one important factor will keep the Internet and the Web on the front page: the drastic imbalance of information over human attention. I think this means that people and companies on the Web will continue to do interesting things to get our attention. When viewership starts slipping, no doubt some CIOs will be forced to pose naked on their sites just to create a buzz.

WHAT KIND OF INFORMATION TECHNOLOGIES WILL PREDOMINATE IN THE FUTURE? My money is on entertainment-oriented technologies. Television and the Internet will merge-and you know what happens to serious forms of information on TV.

Video-gaming technologies will be a part of the mix. We'll use lifelike video simulation and walk-through virtual reality for information that's really important. And all that time your kids spent playing Nintendo will have been time well spent.

HOW WILL PERSONAL INFORMATION BE MANAGED? Over the past couple of years I've seen movies depicting a not-too-distant future in which malevolent entities-corporations or governments-know way too much about individuals and can manipulate their lives at will. It struck me as I viewed these flicks that there was nothing terribly implausible about this vision. In fact, almost all of the individual invasive acts could be performed successfully today, although with less speed and integration. This bit of cinematic futurism made me realize that unless we put on the brakes, eventually individual liberties are going to be in trouble. I think the United States will ultimately join Europe in viewing this as a big issue and that companies and governments won't be allowed to act on much of what they learn about us. Of course, some groups will disobey these laws, which should keep us well supplied with scary movies.

WILL CORPORATIONS CONTINUE TO BE ORGANIZED THE WAY THEY ARE TODAY? Sort of. Big companies will exist to organize and sponsor major projects. But with the rise of the Internet and the continued growth of knowledge-based work, the majority of workers will be free agents who hook up with companies for projects and then move on. The primary affiliations for these workers will not be corporations but rather "guilds" of people who do similar types of work-"e-lancers," as MIT professor Thomas Malone calls them.

WHAT WON'T CHANGE MUCH AT ALL? Most things, fortunately, since I like life as it is. People will continue to want to congregate in the same place on occasion. They'll still have fun and seek diversion. They will die after a hundred years or so (though we may have to force their exits to make room for the new kids). They will continue to have their own desires, hopes and goals-independent of what their organizations or their computers tell them.

They'll continue to care more about food, clothing, shelter and the welfare of their families than almost anything else. Computers, if anything, will become more marginal and taken for granted, simply because they will be everywhere and in everything.

Thomas H. Davenport is a professor of management information systems at Boston University School of Management and director of the Andersen Consulting Institute for Strategic Change. He welcomes reader comments at thomas.h.davenport@ac.com.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

More about AndersenAndersenAndersen ConsultingBoston UniversityCurrent TechnologiesEvolveMITNintendo AustraliaProvision

Show Comments