21 Nov Jeff Wacker, Part II: Automation to replace IT labor
Editor’s note: This is Part II of WTN’s Visions interview with corporate technology futurist Jeff Wacker, an EDS Fellow and a professional member of the World Future Society.
WTN: CIOs are always given a lot of advice about the future. As a futurist, what would you advise them to do in terms of driving their company’s growth?
Wacker: The biggest thing I think a CIO has to do is to understand and foster the rapid rate of change. We all understand that the pace of life is happening faster. It’s only going to go faster and faster, and the traditional ways that a lot of CIOs have been managing the company in terms of their legacy applications, in terms of their business processes that they interact with, those systems are not contemplative of the high amount of change that has to occur.
Some things, such as service-oriented architecture, allow you to get away from large, monolithic systems that, if you want to change them, it’s basically like a heart transplant. You pull the whole thing out as opposed to the service-oriented object approach, where you say, “I will tweak a valve or an artery. I don’t have to do full open-heart surgery.”
The kind of thing we’re starting to see is that the CIO is going to be one of the major focal points of a corporation for introducing and managing change. The technology, of course, has to be hand-and-glove with the business. It’s not a technology-driven business. It’s not a business demanding technology. It’s a synergy, and the CIO is one of the few C-level positions that is ideally equipped to be in the middle of all of that. The CEO is, too, but he or she is basically at the top level, and at the top looking down. The chief operations officer is off to one side, and the CFO is off to one side. The CIO is the person who has to serve the entire corporation. That means he or she has to be a change agent, since a lot of the change is going to be originating from how we use the technologies.
WTN: About the social computing trend in the enterprise, is that something that has legs, or is that a lot of hype?
Wacker: I think it’s a little bit of both. The Web 2.0 is one of the hot topics. Whether it’s fad or real, sometimes at the beginning of a fad you can’t tell the difference. On the other hand, we are starting to see open collaboration. We are starting to see some tremendous advances. A good book on that subject is Wikinomics, Don Tapscott’s [and Anthony D. Williams’] recent book. It looks at the ability to create innovation through collaboration. You’re now starting to see some of the benefits of being able to do that.
The traditional boundaries of a company are the points of interface with their suppliers, their customers, their business partners, and their regulators. Now we’re starting to see that this is totally inadequate. You’re stating to have to see upstream from your suppliers to their suppliers. If you’re going to anticipate a shortage because things are happening so fast, you have to look farther upstream. If you want to expect a change in demand, you have to look downstream into your customers, so what we’re starting to see is what has been called, and is now rightfully becoming, the business ecosystem where your visibility is far upstream and far downstream, and you get to influence everybody else.
That’s part of the social networking phenomenon, not just social networking from Joe to Jeff to Bill, it’s also social networking from my company to your company to the government regulators. And that’s an area that really hasn’t exploded yet, but it will because the same basic concepts of social networking are going to be moving into enterprise-to-enterprise networking as well. But I do believe that it has some legs, yes.
WTN: Is there enough happening with green IT to handle this continued exponential growth?
Wacker: Well, green IT is an interesting thing. IT is a burden on the green from the perspective of two things: one is electric consumption. You know that in 2007, 1.8 percent of all the gigawatts [one billion watts] that are generated are going to data centers. A second challenge is the entire disposal of the very quickly obsolete IT equipment and the heavy metals that are in those. But on the other hand, IT is also a bit of the savior to green IT because if you look at the emissions from the tailpipe of an average automobile, if we didn’t have IT in the form of a computer on the engine, we would not have anywhere near the clean air we do have.
If you start looking at the use of IT for the sighting of alternative energy sites or for the exploration for 4D Seismic [technology], if we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t find what we need in order to stay green on that. Even as you said, the collaboration, that’s an IT-centric perspective. You basically have to have a meeting place, which is IT-driven to get the best minds in the world together to focus on the environmental problems that we have. So, we’ve got an EDS eight on the green IT. Two of them are more on the negative side, and six of them are on the positive uses of IT to basically help us get greener. So I think it’s a mixed bag.
WTN: You wrote a column about a year ago on how technology is making people work longer instead of shorter. Is there any hope for relief from that?
Wacker: [Laughs] First of all, that’s an attitude thing again. I did an interview on that same subject and wrote an article for Financial Times that basically said can I afford to leave my IT device home when I go on my vacation? And again, yes we are working longer, but we’re working mixed. Our home life is now basically being accommodated by our business, and our business life is being accommodated by our home. So, it’s a blending, and it’s going to be hard to say eight hours here, 16 hours there. Now it’s going to be 24 hours where you do some of both – at times more focused in one, at other times more focused in another.
Right now, we are at a point where we are still a human-centric culture. We are the agents that act upon most of the things that happen. As we start looking at some higher degrees of automation, where we are looking at expert systems, where we are looking at things that we are implementing at EDS to automate a lot of our processes, we’re actually relieving a lot of what would be the mundane “I’ve got to be there in order to do it, or I’ve got to have my PC with me.” You want to restart a server, fine, you’ve got your Blackberry, push a button, and you restart the server from a remote. Now, how long would it be for me to go into work, restart the server, and go back home? Instead, we are actually working less because I get this notification that you need to do this work, fine. Poof, done, and I’m back to my home life.
So I think, again, it’s always a mixed blessing. We are going to be working as much as we want to work, and IT will enable us to work where we want to work, not just how much.
WTN: Regarding technology, what would you say your boldest prediction is for the future?
Wacker: With the reduction of skilled workers in the U.S., and I’ll go U.S.-centric, but it’s also western culture because of the Baby Boomers, the Department of Labor is expecting that we’ll have anywhere between 35 and 40 million skilled workers over the next 15 years. That, as a driver alone, is going to drive us to much more highly automated systems that use IT where people’s role is no longer to be the model of the business, but to be managing the model of the business.
My boldest prediction is that people will change from being in the trenches to managing the system that manages the trenches. We call it business by wire, and it’s a little bit like flying an airplane that can’t be flown by a human pilot. The pilot flies the computer, the computer flies the airplane. People will fly the computer that flies the business. Now, we’re to a certain degree on that, but I see that in the next 15 years, we’ll go extremely in that direction simply because with the amount of expertise that is walking out the door with us Boomers that has to be made up somewhere. We can either make up for it with immigration, in which case we have to have very highly skilled and trained immigrants coming in. Or we have to make up for it with offshoring, but a lot of things can’t be done offshore, so we have to make up for it with automation.
The capabilities are lining up now for us to do that, as well as the need for us to do that. It’s out of sheer necessity, so basically what we’re looking at is that people are the caretakers of the model that is the caretaker of the business.