By John M. Jordan
A survey of recent Internet news reveals the degree to which IS executives are being pulled from their traditionally executional orientation ("how") into the realm of content ("what"). The recent U.S. Congressional telecommunications bill and the presidential campaign both have significant subplots that will play out online. CompuServe attempted to censor sexual material at the behest of a local jurisdiction only to confront the boundlessness (and flaming fury) of Net politics. Many companies hastily are drafting policies dictating how employees may and may not surf the Web, participate in online culture and download files. More technically, the promise of Java makes the prospect of a new breed of viruses of more than academic interest.
Even putting aside the Internet, the question of content is more and more apparent in the ways that IS groups interact with business constituencies. Instead of primarily serving as the scorecard for how a company is doing, information and knowledge have become important components of what many companies sell.
This is not only true of the usual suspects, the media giants. For example, the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain is selling quiet yet unfailing recognition of individual preferences; its business is personalized guest satisfaction, not room rental. In the midst of both fundamental disruption and superficial static, we have entered the age of digital capital. Essentially everything that a company knows and, ideally, learns is being collected in data warehouses, CAD/CAE/CAM files, Lotus Notes databases, and billions of desktop spreadsheets and word processing documents.
How well an organization can leverage this knowledge base will determine its long-term survival and prosperity. Companies now must manage knowledge along with every other kind of asset. Who is responsible for this vital task?
Because of the primacy of computers to any business, the IS department continues to be enlisted as a "strategic partner" with business people. Yet the pairing rarely qualifies as either strategic or a partnership. Equipped to handle systems, IS people function poorly as "knowledge czars," preferring that marketing or strategic planning types deal with content issues peripheral to their perceived core mission, which is technological.
But with the emergence of so-called "component-ware" based on object-oriented technologies, plug-and-play will become still more of a reality. As systems increase in transparency, calling on IS for technical expertise will be less and less necessary. Instead, in the absence of real integration of digital knowledge in the core business processes, calling on IS will become more like calling a utility--custodians of huge, complex and essential infrastructures that are invisible when they do their job well.
To gain momentum in the quest for alignment (and thus survival), most IS organizations will have to change fundamental elements of their self-understanding. To many executives, neither maintaining bulletproof hardware nor delivering secure, accurate data constitutes acceptable performance. Total value delivery will require IS to know what bits the enterprise is moving; it will encompass flatter, more responsive organizational shapes, comprehensive change management (not just version control) and strategic enablement of business objectives in addition to bulletproof hardware and secure, accurate data, which continue to matter.
Maintaining the status quo becomes untenable; the inescapable epistemological conclusion is that new forms of knowledge demand new ways of knowing. Such a broad agenda is spurring many companies to rethink the custody of their digital capital and appoint a nontraditional executive: a Chief Knowledge Officer. Such individuals might bring new strategic cards to the table, transcending expertise with intelligence and information with knowledge--if these qualities are valued by the enterprise. With some relearning and in the right kind of organizational culture, the CIO could become the agent to make such change happen.
How might IS become a knowledge-based, content-aware organization? Instead of being concerned with questions of data delivery and infrastructure management, IS must consider more difficult issues. For knowledge to evolve and deliver business impact, it must be considered as content, in the context of motive. What is the enterprise trying to achieve? Why is market share more important than margins in a given setting? What can IS do to enhance the former while maintaining the latter?
These questions of strategy, content and motive separate the CKO from the CIO, who will continue to matter in some contexts. It is instructive, however, to consider the rapid turnover rate among CIOs; an increasing number of businesses do not feel well served by practitioners of the traditional art. If CIOs can transcend the twin constraints of "information" and "systems" to adopt a more comprehensive view of their province, things can change. The only real alternative for these men and women is to be rendered obsolete by the very world they helped create.
John M. Jordan is a senior consultant in the applied technology group of Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC) in Waltham, MA.
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