DC, the Fear Factor and CDO Summit 2017

August 12, 2017

When the Harvey Nash/KPMG 2017 Survey was first published, I will admit I wasn’t thrilled to see “Uncertainty” on the cover. While the data tells an important story of uncertainty and unprecedented change across the tech sector, I am an optimist and technologist who loves numbers, equations, and measurement. “Uncertainty” felt negative, and it felt imprecise. That was in April.
Since then I have presented the survey results numerous times, and the word “uncertainty” now feels like the fact it is. That was undoubtedly true at the inaugural Washington DC CDO Summit on July 26, where I presented the survey’s data as part of a keynote address. Was the atmosphere of uncertainty, and even fear, in DC strong because of our proximity to the heart of our country’s political turmoil? Was it because the tech leaders in the audience are so used to disruption that uncertainty is how we live? No, it’s because we are on the precipice of the next major evolution in technology, and it’s got everyone a little uncomfortable.

Resistance to Change Is Strong
The next big leap forward for the tech industry is AI and machine learning, but few CDOs and business leaders have a clear idea of exactly what that means. We are trying to figure it out. Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are arguing publicly about what it means for technology and humanity. Neither of these tech mavericks knows exactly what’s ahead and that was true for the brilliant minds at the CDO Summit as well. Big changes are coming with rapid advances in AI, but it’s very hard to predict how autonomous, self-learning computers will change how we live and work.
At the CDO Summit, I shared how the CIO Survey revealed that internal culture can be a barrier to innovation and advancement and that same resistance was reflected in our live poll. I asked the audience of CDOs if they came up against resistance to digital initiatives and innovation in their organizations and 76% of them do, with 41% facing strong resistance.
Harvey Nash Digital Resistance Graphic.png
The fear of change, tech change, is a consistent reality IT leaders today are facing. For CDOs and other IT leaders, it can make the case for making changes and tech investments a challenge.
The Fear Is Personal
What I heard at the CDO Summit and continue to hear is that AI and machine learning poses much more than a simple business question. It poses a personal conundrum for us all and a personnel conundrum for the tech sector. Gerrit Lansing, former White House CDO, who presented at the CDO Summit, gave an impressive illustration of one reason why we may fear technology advancements now more than ever. He shared how social bots with the ability to learn and pivot their message and target now have the power to shape elections, giving insight into how much influence technology has today in political discourse and results. When societal norms, like how elections work, change so quickly and almost invisibly, fear and uncertainty are natural results.
Smart Phone As Illustration
I think the rise of the smart phone is a good example of how a big technology revolution changed how we live as much as how we work and shape our lives and environments. It was a transformative moment for people personally as much as it was for industry and markets.
Similarly, AI will also be transformative at all levels of work and life as well, but the fact is we can’t see around that corner yet. What’s ahead is still a mystery. Industry leaders and visionaries are working to understand AI’s future but it’s not clear yet, which is making the uncertainty palpable. What is clear is that advancing automation and breakthroughs in AI will continue to impact jobs in all sectors, including technology.
Engagement Is the Key

For CDOs and other tech leaders, it’s important to recognize that people are worried. To drive technology issues forward, you will have to answer more questions. You will have to be ready with a strong case for investments and changes. And you may have to work harder than ever to win support for innovation initiatives. Another good piece of news from the 2017 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey, which you can request a copy of here, is that businesses are looking for CIOs/tech leaders to play a more strategic business role.
Fittingly the winner of the Chief Digital Officer of the Year award at the CDO Summit was Thomas Hjelm, Chief Digital Officer at NPR–a media organization that can only succeed if it can nurture an audience that is engaged enough to not only to tune in but to also invest in its mission. How can we as IT leaders get decision makers to invest in our mission and colleagues to support it? Engagement is an essential part of the solution. As IT leaders and CDOs, these uncertain times will require that we engage our colleagues and staff with a new level of vigor and transparency so that, despite uncertainty, we can embrace what’s next with enthusiasm, ingenuity and collaboration.