Peter Keen shows IT leaders how to morph

It takes a certain amount of guts to call a group of IT executives dinosaurs.

Dr. Peter Keen, who was the keynote speaker at the CIO Association of Canada’s Peer Forum in Toronto today, chose the metaphor deliberately. Although we tend to lump them all together, there were different kinds of dinosaurs, who evolved over time just as IT leaders are doing today. There are the “dinosaurs 1.0,” he said, which were known for being “poor at identity management” (they’re now extinct), slow-moving and slow to adapt. As were many of the early technology professionals.

Later, there were the pterodactyls, he said, which had wings but were too heavy to fly very well, just as the next generation of CIOs started to jump off a cliff into the challenging waters of business decision-making. These were dinosaurs 2.0, he suggested. As for the third wave, they may still be among us. As Dr. Keen noted, many believe some dinosaurs simply morphed into the birds we seeing flying around us today – lighter, more agile, and more cunning about their survival.

Keen’s point was that IT leaders need to keep morphing, too. “The 50-year infrastructure mission has essentially been achieved,” he said, referring to the movement towards standards-based service oriented architectures. That doesn’t mean cloud computing or virtualization won’t require some IT mechanics. But the emphasis now is probably more on business process management and the ever-elusive “value creation.”

It’s easier to talk about what IT isn’t rather than what it should be, but Keen gave some good examples of where technology professionals have missed the boat. Look at all the failed intranets, groupware and other knowledge management systems, he said, and then look at Facebook, which seemed to come out of nowhere. “In the past there was an awareness of technology because it was so bad,” he said. “Contrast that with the average Facebook user. They have no idea of the technology underlying it.”

There is always an emphasis on improving communication between IT and the business, and many argue that means speaking in more business terms. Keen isn’t so sure. “It’s not a jargon issue,” he said. “I was just meeting with a lawyer to talk about my will and you want them to have jargon if it’s in the context of a conversation.”

That’s where Keen believes IT leaders need to spend more of their time: having meaningful conversations with the right people in the business. “Communication is not just in the talking, it’s in the listening,” he said. “It’s very hard to listen to those people who think they know it all. Especially for those of us who do.”

And what should those conversations be about? Innovation, naturally, but I really liked how Keen defined it. “Invention is just coming up with a solution to a problem,” he said. “Innovation is turning invention into value.”

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