Boom, bust and CIOs

TORONTO – David K. Foot is getting to do what a lot of chief information officers can only dream of doing: bragging about just how right he was.

The economist and author of the bestselling book Boom, Bust and Echo was the keynote speaker Thursday at the eighth annual CIO Association of Canada Peer Forum, where he looked at the disruptive nature of demographic shifts and how they have an impact on wealth, education and political stability. Boom, Bust and Echo, which was originally published in 1996 and was co-written with Daniel Stoffman, suggested that the gradual aging of the Baby Boomer population, coupled with the rise of educated women and falling birth rates, would redefine society’s needs.

For CIOs, he said, one of the biggest takeaways from this evolution should be the potential challenges they will continue to face in hiring and retaining the next generation of technology staffers. Contrary to popular opinion that the Boomers would retire en masse, Foot said the transition would be a gradual one taking place over the next 20 years, and leaving many organizations sorely unprepared.

“We are about to see plummeting university enrollments,” he said, pointing to Eastern Canada as an area of particular concern. “If you thought recruiting was tough before now, that was a cakewalk.”

After a lifetime of collecting and analyzing the data, Foot said it’s possible to make some general statements about the nature of certain demographic groups and how they behave. Boomers, for example, want “peace and quiet,” he said, along with good customer service, for which they’re willing to pay. This is less an issue for younger people, who show no interest in paying for quality of service but expect it as a default, he said.

Similarly, there’s a reason why people sometimes talk in clichés about older people not knowing how to turn on a computer, much less use Web-based tools. “In your teens and 20s you have time to ramp up your technology skills,” said Foot, adding that he himself used to be able to program in FORTRAN, which is mostly out of date today. “By the time you hit your 50s, your skills are obsolete.”

While the demographics of enterprise employees might be different from that of the general population, Foot showed statistics that proved a sharp decline in Internet usage as people get older. “And yet our wonderful government is trying to move all their services online,” he said.

Even as those older workers start to use more technology, their fears trend higher. There are great concerns in the Boomer generation around potential fraud, for example.

Foot admitted he doesn’t carry any mobile devices or respond to e-mails instantly, but he recognizes the need for greater flexibility around technology in the workplace, if organizations want to attract the right people. “If you don’t let my students text, you’re a dinosaur as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

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