IT talent management, a tough job for CIOs under any circumstances, is approaching albatross-level status. Even the best hires can’t be expected to possess all the technical skills they’ll need to keep up with the blistering pace of technology change and business demands.
So it is hardly surprising that the session on IT talent management at the recent SIM Boston Technology Leadership Summit — “The Fight for Talent: How to Mentor, Groom and Grow your Team” — drew a large crowd. The shocker? CIOs are not just fighting an uphill battle in the so-called IT talent wars, the talent management processes at their disposal — developed for labor markets that no longer exist — are worse than one might have surmised from personal experience.
“Deloitte did a study in 2015 in which 88% of companies said they were planning on rethinking or changing their employment processes,” said panel moderator Devan Dewey, CTO at NEPC LLC, a Boston-based investment firm.
As Dewey explained, the two-pronged focus of talent management systems — employee accountability and employee development — has its roots in the U.S. military. The merit rating system devised by the military in WWI to flag performance was by the 1940s in use at 60% of companies for measuring past performance and allocating merit raises. In WWII, the military changed its approach, devising a system to identify and develop promising officer candidates; by the 1960s, employers had decided they too should be in the business of employee development and goal setting.
Over the decades, corporate emphasis on the twin strands of these military-derived talent management systems has shifted back and forth depending on the economy. Since the turn of the century, however, there is growing recognition that practices — whether regarding employee accountability or growth — have not kept pace with reality.
“Bottom line, we’re in an environment that is changing rapidly. Finding and developing talent is difficult, and the systems we have to do that are in flux,” Dewey said.
Attitude and adaptability
The inadequacy of current IT talent management systems was borne out by the panel’s two veteran IT leaders: Joel Jacobs and Dan Sheehan. Jacobs is CIO at The MITRE Corp., a large not-for-profit that provides research and other services to the federal government. A MITRE veteran of 28 years, he oversees an IT team of 400 people.
Dan Sheehan, a veteran of the retail industry whose previous posts include CIO at Dunkin’ Brands and COO at Modell’s Sporting Goods, joined DentaQuest as CIO in Jan. 2015. He oversees a team of 270 IT staffers and contractors at the $1.9 billion oral health insurer.
For Sheehan, attitude is the No. 1 predictor of employee success. “I am always looking for not just what was done but how it was executed,” he said. People with the right attitude will want to learn skills they may lack. In his two years on the job at DentaQuest, Sheehan said he has struggled with finding those employees. The health insurance
ce business is undergoing many changes, but work processes — and performance metrics — are slow to change, so even new hires quickly get attached to the status quo. “It has been tough, I have to admit, because some people just don’t want to change,” he said. Or embrace new ways of working. “I can’t get folks to think beyond the process they’re in charge of.”
Everybody’s system ‘sucks’
Asked if this was also a challenge for him, Jacobs said, it is, in particular with regard to new hires. “I don’t have a magic formula for determining who is going to be able to learn and adapt. I wish I did,” he said.
But MITRE does invest a lot in training, Jacobs said. Everyone in his organization goes through customer service training; senior management goes through “trusted advisor training,” which teaches techniques for partnering with business partners. Those two skills, plus adaptability, are a big part of people’s success at MITRE.
In addition, MITRE decided two years ago it needed to rethink how it evaluated employee performance. Jacobs — one of the executives who led the project — took a course at Harvard Business School in performance and talent management, expecting to learn about the useful techniques and the many excellent talent management systems in use at other companies.
“What I heard was that every company’s system sucks,” he said. “I was stunned, but it left me in the position to say we can’t look to somebody else’s model … we have to determine what works for us.”
The network effect
MITRE wound up renovating its old performance management system — but not before a thorough re-evaluation that revealed a “thirst” for more accurate and effective assessment and employee development, Jacobs said. “We ultimately determined that we should be having a conversation about roles and results and behaviors,” he said. “It is a completely different process than what we had before.” The need for clearer expectations, more frequent interaction between managers and staff, and a better understanding of when people go “above and beyond the table stakes of their job descriptions” and when they fall short, drove the overhaul, Jacobs said.
The new system also takes into account how results are accomplished. “If you left dead bodies by the side of the road while you did the job, we ought to know that and maybe change the process.”
Another new wrinkle at MITRE? The company, with permission, has recently begun using the LinkedIn networks of MITRE employees to find new people, Jacobs said. People who work in a given space are more likely to be connected to people with similar skills. “We are in a war for talent, we want to get the best people we can and we can’t wait forever,” he said.
A recent industry report had a finding anyone in IT right now would find arresting: Cloud adoption rates have dipped.
Me: Come again?
Report: Usage of cloud applications is down from 2014. For example, 35% of surveyed organizations are using cloud analytics software. Two years ago, 53% did. Cloud email, collaboration, customer relationship management and financial apps all saw usages drops.
CompTIA’s latest “Trends in Cloud Computing” delivered the dramatic news.
It was the second cloud double take I had done this fall. Last week I wrote on Boston footwear manufacturer New Balance’s underwhelmed regard for cloud computing — at least, as the sole processing power behind an expansion that includes opening stores on several continents and developing its custom footwear services. This, from a company that, according to Ravi Shankavaram, its vice president of IT, has adopted a “cloud-first” strategy. Was an anti-cloud front moving in?
Hardly. Gartner predicts the public cloud market to grow 16.5% in 2016, to $204 billion. IDC forecasts spending on cloud infrastructure this year to increase 16.2%, to $37.4 billion. And Morgan Stanley found earlier this year that cloud is one of CIOs’ top spending projects in 2016 and predicted that 30% of application workloads will move to the public cloud by the end of next year.
Deciphering dipping digits
CompTIA knew that reported decreases in cloud adoption rates would cause some surprise, so it painted the context.
“In the early days of cloud, employees likely assumed that any off-premise application was cloud-based,” the report explained. “With a greater appreciation for cloud-specific characteristics, employees are honing their assessment.”
In other words, people know more about cloud now, so they’re more careful about IT services they’re taking on as cloud — and they can more accurately distinguish between cloud and non-cloud applications.
Vendors are partly responsible for the confusion; many label computing services that aren’t cloud cloud in hopes of drawing buyers. It’s a phenomenon known as cloud washing. For example, managed hosting — leased servers dedicated for a specific client — doesn’t always offer the same scalability and other benefits as true cloud options do.
Lauren Nelson, an analyst at Forrester Research, said she’s skeptical about numbers that say spending on cloud services are going down. Another explanation, she said, is users overstated their original adoption levels, or it could be other factors.
“Is it a developer answering that question? Is it an end user? What were the different data sources? Were there inconsistencies in that data set? I’d question a lot of that.”
The gathering cloud
Nelson said she hasn’t seen apps moving away from the public cloud; in fact, they’re expanding in it.
“This past year we saw the first interest and increase in cloud migration efforts versus building net new apps in the cloud, which is what the story has been over the last however many years,” she said.
CompTIA agrees, saying that the declines in cloud adoption rates — or “rebalancing” of how organizations do cloud assessments — do not signal that the market is in decline.
“Cloud, then, will be a major part of the enterprise technology landscape,” CompTIA said in the report. “A greater part of the total IT spend will shift to cloud technology, and cloud offerings will also expand budgets as they expand the limits of what a business is able to accomplish.”
So read the numbers, and rebalance yourself.
Still looking for a way to make sense of the current political season? MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines has created Electome, an analytics tool that tracks election conversation. Dubbed a “social machine,” Electome uses technology to “make sense of semantic and social patterns across the broad span of public mass media, social media, data streams, and digital content,” according to MIT Media Lab’s website.
The aim, said Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab and a keynote speaker at Boston’s recent FutureM conference, is to get a deeper look at the conversations people are having about the election and “make the discussion around what people are talking about instead of about who will win.”
To do this analysis, Ito said some 5,000-6,000 news stories and 500 million tweets are being pushed through Electome every day.
One interesting point about this election that Electome helped to uncover, Ito relayed, was that Hillary Clinton, although she is former Secretary of State, “is associated more with the economy than with national security and foreign policy.” Donald Trump, on the other hand, “who is a business person, is extremely connected to foreign policy and national security,” he added.
Electome is also used to see what the followers of each presidential candidate are talking about in order to draw distinctions and identify any similarities among voters.
“When the Orlando attack happened, we were looking at conversations on Twitter, and guns were a really important topic,” Ito said, but supporters of the candidates did not interpret the event in the same way. “Clinton followers tend to talk about gun issues and LGBT issues, whereas the Trump followers framed it around terrorism.”
Some of the negative political discussions seen online are also coming from sources in Russia, according to Ito.
“An agency in Russia, [composed] of thousands of trolls, that are paid for by the government, go around and spew negative stuff,” Ito said. The 2016 presidential election has recently and repeatedly been targeted by Russian hackers who have stirred up trouble through data leaks and data breaches. These Russian trolls are most likely the individuals who are currently targeting the presidential election, Ito said.
Indeed, for the first time, the Obama administration last week officially accused Russia of hacking the Democratic National Committee and interfering with the presidential election. According to the Washington Post, Russia could face an array of possible penalties including indictments, economic sanctions and the ejection of Russian diplomats from the U.S.
By now, you’ve heard. Google Apps for Work is no more.
Late last month, Google’s office productivity suite of email, word processing, spreadsheets and other applications was renamed G Suite and equipped with machine-learning capabilities. Google Calendar, for example, can propose meeting times and conference rooms in your office building, basing suggestions on people’s availability and past choices, and the Drive file-sync-and-share app can make guesses about what file you’re looking for.
But Google may have to do a lot more than rebrand and juice up its cloud apps to challenge Microsoft’s office-suite dominance. The vast majority of businesses run Microsoft Office.
Microsoft wins in an apple-to-apples cloud comparison, too. Among the 13% of publicly traded company using cloud productivity offerings, according to a 2016 study by market research outfit Gartner, Office 365 accounts for nearly 9%; Google claims just 5%.
There are multifarious reasons for the gap — businesses love Office and don’t want to give it up; they prefer Office features over Google’s; or they find Office just does more of what they need.
Microsoft 1, Google 0
Jonathan Reichental, CIO at the city government of Palo Alto, Calif., recently evaluated G Suite’s predecessor, Apps for Work, and Office 365. He chose Microsoft’s cloud-based office productivity suite because “Google doesn’t really get close to Microsoft in terms of functionality.”
Moreover, the city found that when year-over-year costs are figured in, Office 365 was 50% cheaper than Google Apps for the same set of features.
His analysis looked at rollouts of Google Apps in government agencies and found difficulties there. The documents patrons and partners sent them were in Word, and Google’s word-processing program, Google Docs, often didn’t render formatting well.
Workers in Palo Alto’s government were also just used to Microsoft and to running things like Active Directory, Microsoft’s directory service. The possibilities for integration with Office 365 were “very compelling,” Reichental said.
“It really wasn’t a hard decision when we did the analysis,” he said. “I thought actually that when we did the review ourselves, when we did this analysis, we’d be on the fence. But the clear difference and alignment with our needs became very easy for us to make that decision.”
“Real time co-authoring? Office 365 can do that, and with Skype IM integration,” wrote SoniaC, in the comments section. “Sharing outside the organisation without the recipient needed a login? Office 365 can do that too.”
When Office 365 first came out, in 2011, Google was the clear leader in cloud productivity software, but Microsoft’s product has come a long way.
“Those features that most people think are a Google only thing are now the tip of the iceberg of what Office 365 can do,” SoniaC wrote.
Others stand by Google’s office productivity suite.
“It works,” wrote a reader who goes by WutikraiXX. “We no longer send a boring attached document via mail.” Instead the reader shares the document, chats online with collaborators and makes necessary changes.
Another reader likes Google Apps, but the company she works for doesn’t.
“Unfortunately things like Google Docs are blocked,” wrote abuell, also known as Abby Buell DeBoni, a software engineer in South Bend, Ind. “It is considered as external/cloud file sharing, and we are not allowed to access anything like that on work devices.”
“What I’ve seen come from that is the introduction of Google apps as Shadow IT because the users use them anyway, unless they are blocked.”
While the Gartner study found that Microsoft was far more common in large companies — claiming more than 80% of companies with more than $10 billion in revenue, for example — Google’s popularity rises in smaller ones.
Reichental, from the Palo Alto city government, sees why.
“There’s no doubt that if I started up a little tech company I would use Google,” he said, “because I would just need the basic features, small team, low overhead — quick and simple and meets all my basic needs.”
Will machine learning help G Suite meet more of those needs, lure many, many more customers and cast a shadow on Microsoft’s productivity dominance, in the cloud or elsewhere?
Right now, with Microsoft matching Google on innovation, adding machine learning to Office and Office 365 — and claiming 1.2 billion people as Office users, according to Microsoft’s numbers — that’s a tougher hypothetical situation to conjure up.
The advent of driverless vehicles — accompanied by the end of private car ownership by 2025 — represents the future of transportation, according to ridesharing pioneer Lyft. Pie-in -the-sky predictions? The ridesharing movement has already made its mark as an industry disruptor, eating into the taxi industry and supplementing public transportation. As driverless vehicles from the likes of Lyft and Uber and others make their ways onto our roadways, industry experts have no doubt this technology advance will have a tremendous impact on the automotive business.
But how exactly Lyft will make the transition to this new future — and do it without cannibalizing its current business — was debated at a recent event at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass., featuring Lyft CTO Chris Lambert.
Speaking to an audience of students, Lambert detailed the current state of transportation in America, giving his take on the bold prediction made last month by Lyft Co-Founder, John Zimmer, on Sept. 18. On the future of transportation: Namely, that within five years the majority of Lyft rides will be by autonomous vehicles and by 2025 private ownership will all but end in major U.S. cities.
Lambert referred to this future as the “the third transportation revolution,” or, “the point where transportation as a service becomes more enjoyable and affordable.”
Students took a more granular view of this future. They peppered Lambert with multiple versions of the same question: How will Lyft differentiate itself from competitors once human drivers are no longer necessary?
One of Lyft’s core values since its inception has been its self-proclaimed unique driver-rider experience. Riders are encouraged to sit up-front and strike up a conversation with their driver, as if chatting with a friend. If cars become driverless, what will differentiate Lyft from any other driverless vehicle out there?
“The differentiation lies within the experience. The opportunity moves away from just getting from A to B to getting from A to B in the most productive and enjoyable way available,” Lambert said. In the future, riders could have the possibility of selecting different vehicles for different experiences: dining cars, social cars or gaming cars, he said.
Three phases to the future of transportation
In any case, drivers will still play a large role in Lyft’s business model for the next decade, Lambert said. Phase one, with human drivers, is currently underway. Five years from now is phase two, a “hybrid” system with autonomous vehicles manned by human drivers that can aid the cars if certain routes are unable to be performed by the car alone. In 10 years, we can expect “fully autonomous” Lyft vehicles, Lambert said, but even then human drivers won’t be entirely out of the picture.
“Depending on where you’re going or coming from, that route may be eligible to be dispatched with an autonomous vehicle or it might need a human driver.” Some routes may still be too challenging or even impossible for fully autonomous vehicles to drive on.
Driverless cars and the environment
Transportation is currently the second-highest household expense in America, according to Lambert, and the average vehicle remains parked 96% of the time. Lambert said autonomous vehicles will be hailed from a central fleet and alleviate parking space congestion along streets. Lambert said the 700 million parking spots in America are enough to pave Connecticut, accounting for a tremendous amount of, “unused space” that could be replaced with parks and additional housing.
Lyft has other plans to reduce the number of cars on the road: The company will start a subscription model in the future, where instead of paying per ride users will purchase a yearly subscription. This will save consumers money by helping them avoid buying a new car every few years and spending even more on its maintenance and upkeep, Lambert said.
Lyft, valued last year at around $5 billion, often operates in the shadow of its competitor, the rideshare giant Uber, but Lambert said that Lyft has solidified its position in the ridesharing market after receiving a $500 million investment from General Motors (GM) to spearhead the development of the autonomous technology. GM is primarily responsible for the research and development of Lyft’s fleet of autonomous vehicles, whereas Lyft itself is responsible for the software side.
Lambert admitted that a big obstacle to the future of transportation and the autonomous car trend will be convincing consumers to give up driving. When asked what companies he considered to be Lyft’s competitors, Lambert said it was “behavior change.”
“It’s going to take a lot of investment and awareness to have consumers give up their cars,” Lambert said.
When Apple introduced the iPhone 7 last week, with no headphone jack, and its wireless earbuds, it was sketching out a future in which devices connect – to other devices, to the internet, to people — without cords. And though consumers were the target of the San Francisco event, it was the future of mobile devices in business that was on my mind.
I asked Christopher Voce, an analyst at Forrester Research, about the mobile future. What would the corporate world use mobile devices for five, 10, 15 years from now? Much, he said.
Today workers use smartphones and tablets primarily for viewing information, Voce said — reading the news, say, or shopping — and for communicating with friends and co-workers. In the future, they will use mobile devices more for “transactions.”
These tasks that can take multiple forms, Voce said, “whether that be an insurance adjuster on-site taking pictures or assessing an accident or a doctor with a patient or a field worker working in the energy industry taking readings.”
Certainly, some of that work is already happening on mobile devices, but Voce said Forrester surveys have shown that some worker roles, like engineers and designers, have been “underserved with regard to mobile,” — that is, they’re looking for mobile tools they might need to be more productive. Examples include computer-aided design systems or mobile software that lets them collect specs or show demos to customers. “That’s the next frontier for enterprises,” he said.
Apple’s mobile future
And while companies develop new business uses for mobile devices, Apple will most likely continue doing what it does, which is appealing to consumers.
“Talking about consumer versus enterprise with Apple can be a distraction,” Voce said. “They focus on the individual, primarily the consumer, but also somebody who goes to work — and the more that they can appeal to a person [who will] use a device at home and the office, that just helps them grow and sell their devices.”
It’s not certain yet whether the iPhone 7 will continue that tradition. Taking away the device’s headphone jack drew no shortage of social media jeers, as did the new earbuds, the $159 Airpods. Seeming to confirm the lackluster response was a poll by market researcher Morning Consult: 68% of people who’ve heard of the device weren’t planning to buy it.
But the more powerful, water- and dust-resistant new release was met with a number of positive industry reviews, and Apple’s early supply of the new phones sold out fast, pushing back delivery of some models to November. Appealing to the masses could be working — albeit in mysterious ways.
Irwin Lazar, an analyst at Nemertes Research, said Apple’s role in a mobile business future will likely be one built on partnerships with other big tech companies. For example, there’s a much vaunted partnership with IBM that has churned out more than 100 mobile apps for industries such as retail, financial services, travel, healthcare and energy. And another with SAP, on apps that will mesh with the German company’s back-office systems. Cisco and eye-care company Bausch & Lomb are on the list, too.
“Most enterprises won’t be dealing directly with Apple,” Lazar said. Instead, they’ll look at “how the enterprises they work with today — SAP, Cisco, Microsoft, et cetera — at how well those guys play with Apple.”
How do Apple’s recent iPhone and Apple Watch rollouts affect CIOs? Read about it in this SearchCIO column.
What do smart city initiatives look like? Turning streetlamps on and off with Wi-Fi? Analyzing reams of traffic data to reroute how cars flow through city streets? Using video sensors to watch for crime?
Bring up the concept of using technology to improve city services with Bill Oates, and you’ll talk about connecting with citizens — all of them, including people with disabilities.
“Everybody means everybody,” said Oates, vice president and general manager of Perkins Solutions, the technology division of Perkins School for the Blind. “That means you need to think about how, as you become a smarter city, are you engaging folks that have to engage in different ways?”
Staying in touch
Making connections is a huge part of Oates’ job. Perkins Solutions ships Braille writers and other technologies to 170 countries and is now exploring how new technologies can help people who are blind or visually impaired. He and his team do that by working closely with teachers and students on Perkins’ campus, in Watertown, Mass.
Later this month, Perkins will release a mobile app that helps people with vision loss navigate to within a few feet of a bus stop. The project was sparked by a Perkins employee who is blind and had trouble pinpointing the exact locations of bus stops.
Oates is a longtime CIO, having led IT in Massachusetts’ state government and Boston’s city government — and the idea of technology improving how states and cities could reach out to their constituents was never far from his mind. When he worked for the city, he implemented Citizens Connect, a mobile app that lets residents report issues like a street light being out or garbage not being picked up. The program gained nationwide attention and became the model for similar projects in other cities.
Smarter cities, smarter states
The Perkins app, Oates said, shows that technology can be harnessed and put to use for people with specific needs — and he hopes cities and states looking to get started on smart city initiatives will take notice.
Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which runs the Boston area’s buses, subways and trolleys, have been working with Perkins on the mobile app. A partnership with another city could explore using other technologies — beacons, for example, which broadcast signals — to increase location accuracy, Oates said. A second-generation mobile app could be used to find not just bus stops but train stations or other city landmarks.
Luiza Aguiar, director of products at Perkins Solutions, said the search is on for “smart city CIOs who are looking for innovation.”
The exploration won’t stop there, Oates said. Perkins has bigger aspirations yet, looking to state governments and even other countries to experiment with ever-newer technology — say, connected cars — and help make them more accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired.
“This app is just a first step for us, but we think it’s a really great place for us to be,” Oates said, “and hopefully gives us a chance to tell this story and make sure that it does get amplified.”
Read about the process that kick-started the Perkins bus stop app.
Talk of the demise of the chief digital officer role — an executive position designed to help companies drive digital strategy — is surfacing. And not just in media reports. Ask chief digital officers what their ultimate goal is, and you’ll likely hear it’s to put themselves out of a job. That’s because once digital strategy becomes the business strategy, a chief digital cheerleader is no longer necessary.
Regardless of the CDO’s fate, digital initiatives will remain important to the business, said Anna Frazzetto, chief digital technology officer — that’s CDTO — at IT recruiting company Harvey Nash. And, so, while CDOs might not be called CDOs for long, the digital agenda they’ve championed won’t disappear. That’s good news for CIOs who haven’t shied away from the digital business bandwagon and not so good news for CIOs who have. Because here’s how Frazzetto sees the role evolving: “I think there’s going to be a melding of the CIO role and the CDO role,” she said. “It’s going to be called something else, but the underlying current is going to be the digital officer aspect of it.”
Frazzetto, whom I met at last May’s CDO Summit, speaks from personal experience. In her role as CDTO at Harvey Nash, Frazzetto weighs in on internal technology planning, but she also works with customers to help them build a digital strategy. Her current position underscores both her technology experience (she got her start at IBM as a systems engineer) and her communication skills (at a mentor’s behest, she pursued roles on the business side of the house).
The techno-biz blend of skills isn’t unheard of for CDOs. David Yakir, one of the first digital officers, was both a CTO and a CEO before becoming Young & Rubicam Group’s CDO in 2003. And, so, while Frazzetto’s title as a CDTO is unique, her range of experience as a digital officer isn’t. If Frazzetto is right and businesses decide to merge the CDO and CIO positions, chief information officers who aren’t working collaboratively with the business may have a tough time competing for the newly hatched role.
It’s those CIOs’ own doing, she argues. If they’d kept pace with the business, transforming the role as necessary, the CDO position wouldn’t exist. “It’s kind of like UPS and FedEx. They came into existence because the postal system didn’t think about having next-day delivery,” she said.
Talking SMAC, an acronym for social, mobile, analytics and cloud, is so yesterday. Instead, if CIOs want to be fashion forward — technologically speaking — they should start talking artificial intelligence, machine learning and software-defined security, an approach that relies on software rather than hardware to enforce security policies regardless of the user’s — or the application’s — location.
Technologies like these are broadly featured in Gartner’s new “Hype Cycle” report on emerging tech trends. They keep company with the likes of quantum computing, which leverages quantum mechanics to produce a big computational boost, and with the science-fiction sounding smart dust, micro-electromechanical systems that can detect environmental factors like temperature. Far out? Not as far out as one might think, said Gartner analyst Betsy Burton, one of the report’s authors, in a recent webinar. She described the technologies as the foundation of digital business 2.0, building on the big data/cloud/mobile framework and striving to make the line between the digital and physical worlds practically indistinguishable.
“Digital business technologies are moving beyond the initial hype,” Burton said, referring to technologies like wearables, blockchain, 3D printing and the Internet of Things. “And we’re starting to see new disciplines and innovations when it comes to how to support digital business in a more effective way.” She pointed to artificial intelligence a la smart applications, conversational interfaces and virtual personal assistants as an example of a class of technologies that will push the digital business envelope.
Burton and fellow analyst Mike Walker, a co-author of the report, framed the emerging tech hype cycle in IT terms, pointing to three “macro” trends.
- First, CIOs and IT leaders will need to help create more dynamic, seamless experiences for customers (by way of augmented or virtual reality, for example). “It’s about how technologies are blending into our environment,” Walker said.
- Second, experience is only half of the equation; the other half is intelligence, he said. Embedded algorithms and more advanced analytics can deliver the right kind of experience at the right time. “Context is king,” he said.
- Third, the platform is the bridge between human and technology. Platforms will not only enable new business models, but will help companies scale digital business up and out, what Burton described as “the next big challenge for organizations.”
For the uninitiated, Gartner hype cycles track the maturation of a wide swath of technologies from market noise to mainstream adoption. For this year’s emerging tech hype cycle, the consultancy looked at more than 2,000 technologies and pinpointed the 30-plus it believes CIOs and IT leaders should familiarize themselves with to help build out their IT roadmap.
“It’s important to understand that the timeline we’re looking at here is between a five- and 10-year horizon,” Walker said. In other words, the technologies featured in this report aren’t necessarily ripe for implementation (brain-computer interface, anyone?) but instead house the potential for a company’s next competitive advantage — at least in Gartner’s eyes.
Robotic process automation software is having a moment, this despite there being a good deal of confusion about what the term refers to.
The robotic process automation (RPA) that’s hot today does not refer to the industrial robots that automated manufacturing plants. It’s also different from cognitive robotic process automation — technologies using so-called neural networks like those that animate IBM Watson and Google Deep Mind, which depend upon very large data sets to mimic human decision making.
The robotic process automation that’s getting a lot of buzz today refers to software that can help automate mainly back office work that is rules-driven, repetitive and involves overlapping systems: think tasks that search, gather, collate and update data.
“It’s what they call ‘swivel chair’ work — clicking on multiple systems, getting data from one source and putting it into another, where people are actually stuck four or five hours a day just doing this boring, manual nonsense,” said Allan Surtees, head of IT at Gazprom Energy in Manchester, U.K., a gas and electricity supplier to businesses in the U.K., France and the Netherlands.
Surtees began working with RPA software developed by Blue Prism more than five years ago at his previous job with Q2 UK, a Telefonica company, so when he joined Gazprom in 2014, he was primed. During his first three months there, as he talked with business partners about the IT function, homing in on problems they needed solved, he also met with users.
“I observed straightaway that a lot of them were doing work … with data that gets manually copied and pasted from one system to another. I saw immediately there was an opportunity for RPA,” he said, adding that RPA at Gazprom is not about eliminating jobs. His first project involves a “very simple process” that automates how meter readings are verified, freeing up the employee tasked with that chore for work that will bring in revenue, he said.
RPA best practices still ‘in infancy’
Surtees’ approach to RPA — talking to the business, observing manual work and targeting processes, or parts of processes where automation adds value — is essential for RPA success and not easy to do. Matching RPA to the right process is “still an art form,” said Craig LeClair, principal analyst at Forrester Research, specializing in enterprise architecture.
Indeed, best practices for RPA are still in their infancy, LeClair said. The result is that RPA projects are being implemented without a solid framework that covers change management, identifies gaps in the process that affect compliance, supports customer experience and prepares for cognitive RPA.
Here are a few of his guidelines highlighted in a Forrester report on RPA best practices published in May.
Identify data entry and review tasks that cross multiple systems. LeClair cites a mortgage origination process that involved three separate employee groups interacting with and requiring training on 15 systems. The implementation of RPA robots, which review captured data, eliminated one entire group and cut down the systems employees needed to be trained on to only seven.
Be prepared to dive into process minutia. Programming a software robot requires knowing exactly where to grab a particular field on a screen and which events will trigger an action. Plus, if a screen changes orientation or a user skips a field, it will throw off the bot.
Design RPA processes with expert employees who know the steps better than anyone. One caveat: When it comes to testing RPA, it may be better to use “the worst and dullest” rather than the process experts, as the experts are the most likely to be offended by the automation of tasks they have mastered to perfection.
Keep compliance and legal teams in the loop. RPA is good at generating reports needed for compliance, and combined with analytics, RPA can cut down on compliance reporting. But using bots to perform human work also introduces a new category of risk.