In 2013, tech entrepreneur and TED.com ambassador Jim Stolze got sick of discussing the potential of AI and decided he wanted to get his hands dirty. He founded Aigency, a recruitment company that connects businesses with the algorithms they need to streamline and automate their operations.
Everyone in the office huddles over their pads, taking down notes furiously as the CEO sketches her vision for the new product on the whiteboard at the front of the room. In the corner, another executive, the CIO, is preparing to unveil a mocked-up prototype, which still hides tantalisingly beneath a sheet.
The scene is a familiar one, repeated a million times in offices around the world. Except that this office doesn’t really exist and none of the team is actually there.
This Virtual Reality meeting is a vision of the very near future. New advances like VR, AI, cloud computing and Big Data are changing the nature of the workplace as we know it. The digital revolution is in full swing and the executives charged with leading it are the CIOs. Chief Information Officer is a job that didn’t exist 40 years ago. Now it is at the heart of the digital revolution, introducing new software, apps and technology to change the way we work forever.
Virtual Reality conferencing may not be an everyday occurrence yet, but other tools are already helping CIOs to disrupt the workplace. Jeroen Brouwers is the CTO / CIO for Dutch-based CX Company, which makes AI-powered conversation platforms to help improve customer experiences. Brouwers has seen nearly all servers eliminated from the office as data has been transferred to the Cloud. With the adoption of cloud-based software such as Microsoft Office 365 and Teams, remote working has become organically part of the company’s culture. And CX Company is now preparing to move everything, including its source code, to the Cloud. Brouwers sees it as the first step towards a more global and fluid approach to collaborating. “That trend won’t stop,” he says. “We will work with people on the other side of the world we’ve never met on a daily basis in virtual teams. That’s just what’s going to happen.”
AI and machine learning are other developments that CIOs are having to factor in to the changing workplace. Rachel Dunscombe is Director of Digital, at Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust. Voted third in the UK’s CIO top 100 2017, Dunscombe has already overseen the introduction of AI and machine learning to her Manchester-based healthcare trust. AI-powered robotics are being introduced in the delivery and dosage of medicines to patients at home and in care homes. Digital pathology has also seen the use of learning algorithms which scan digital pictures of cells for signs of diseases like cancer. This process, combined with digital data storage, has vastly increased the efficiency of diagnosis. “When people come to discuss the case, they can do so all over the globe,” says Dunscombe. If there’s a very rare cancer you can ask an expert from Harvard or one of the European specialist centres to, if you like, come in and take a look. It really speeds up the process.”
Working in healthcare, Dunscombe sees herself as sitting on a goldmine of high-quality data. And it is this Big Data she sees powering future improvements, like identifying individuals most vulnerable to illness. It has already achieved concrete results in stroke treatment where mining information about stroke patients led to one extra life in every ten saved over a hundred-day period “We’re identifying people and putting personalised and precision care packages in that really help them,” says Dunscombe.
That isn’t to say there aren’t challenges in trying to implement such wholesale changes. Both Brouwers and Dunscombe point to the human side of the job – getting people to adapt to change that is both widespread and frequent. Change management and management in general are key aspects of the job. “If you’re a backroom geek, this probably isn’t the job for you,” says Dunscombe. “It’s about storytelling, leading people on a journey of where they can go. I think my job is mostly selling – selling the concept that we can change.”
The biggest challenge however, might not come from those the CIOs manage, but from those who manage them. According to Ade McCormack, a digital strategist who helps organisations thrive in the digital age, CIOs are often straightjacketed by the role that boards assign them. “The traditional perception of a CIO is not as a CIO but as an IT manager,” says McCormack, “the person that delivers the latest apps and so on. Because of that perception they’re not getting the opportunity – or sometimes even the thought – that they could be leading the digital change.” McCormack thinks that although boards need to change their perceptions of CIO’s, CIOs could do more to push their own case. Instead of being mired in the day-to-day concerns of new software introduction, they could outsource the more humdrum stuff to the Cloud, freeing up time and budget to focus on new innovations that add value to the company.
Part of the problem, according to McCormack, is not just how CIOs are perceived, but how they perceive themselves. “There’s still a case where CIOs judge their self-worth and power by the number of servers they have,” he says. “Reducing your IT function from 500 to 10 people doesn’t seem to appeal, whereas in fact it would be the smart way to go.”
If CIOs put themselves in the driving seat of innovation, the long-term gains could be extraordinary in a working landscape that has undergone tectonic shifts.
McCormack see the digital revolution as being as disruptive to work life as the industrial and agricultural ones that preceded it. Remote and home working will become the norm in an environment where power has shifted from the employer to the employee and IT is all about freeing up human brains to do more creative work. “In the digital age the name of the game is cognitive management,” says McCormack. “I need to be able to apply my limited cognitive capacity to doing creative things that give rise to high-margins services. So there’s a straightforward role of the IT function, delivering apps that augment our cognitive capacity, not drain it.”
Automation, rather than throwing millions of workers on the scrapheap, will free human brains to move up the food chain. “The person who sits at the checkout counter and the person who runs the business – there’s very little difference in their cognitive capacity,” says McCormack. “There’s no reason why we can’t harness the powerful brains of these people. I’m already seeing some organisations realise it’s not about dumping people on the streets, it’s about starting to move them up the value stack.”
McCormack sees companies becoming “cognitive gymnasiums” that seek to attract the best athletes with the strength of their tech and existing talent, providing environments which “allow great people to do great work with other great people”. Companies will operate more with a tribal mentality, where everyone is truly working towards the same goal, a bit like the case of the toilet cleaner at NASA who, when asked what his job was, replied it was to put a man on the moon. But these tribes will be fluid and transient, rather than permanent clunky structures. “I might run with a tribe only for three months,” says McCormack, “but I might also be part of six or seven other tribes in the course of a week.”
With fluid company structures and power in the hands of talented employees, the digital era will in fact become the human era. “Up until the industrial era we behaved quite naturally,” says McCormack, “in that we were mobile, social, our work and lives were integrated, we were creative, curious, and we were judged on our productivity. Come the industrial era all that stopped dead. We became cogs in the machine. This shift out of the industrial era to the digital era is us returning to our true nature, and it’s a profound anthropological change. The digital revolution is not about tech but about returning to our true nature, augmented with tech.”
CIOs will be front and centre of this profound anthropological shift, according to McCormack, because – if they step up to the plate – they will be the innovators providing this augmentative technology. The technology that allows us to become truly human again.