February 27, 2009

Lessons from Space for CIOs

There are no CIOs in space. At least not yet. Someday, as we colonize space, there will be. And information technology will be more important then ever as communications, information sharing, collaboration, and new ways of doing things enable people to live and work in distances that are now just the realm of science fiction.

As I read about space tourism in MIT Technology Review, January/February 2009, I realized there are already lessons for CIOs from space travel even in its nascent stages.

  • Modernize, as needed—as technologists, some erroneously think that everything has to be swapped out and modernized every few years (for example, many organizations are on na 3 year refresh cycle—whether they need it or not!), but the Russian space program teaches us differently. They modernize, not on a fixed time, but rather as needed. They work by the principle “if it’s not broken don’t fix it.” Here’s an excerpt: “You can look at the original Soyuz, and the same physical design—same molds, even—appear to have been used throughout its history…But anything that has ever gone wrong or failed, they fix. Or if there is some new technology that comes along that would be of significant benefit, they change it also. Isn’t this a novel principle that we can adapt for sound IT investment management?

  • Functional minimalism--for many organizations and individuals, there is a great desire to have the latest and greatest technology gadgets and tools. Some call these folks technology enthusiasts or cutting-edge. And while, IT is incredibly exciting and some missions really need to be cutting-edge to safeguard lives for example. Many others don’t need to have a closet with one of every software package, hardware gadget, or new tool out there. I’ve seen mid-size organizations that literally have thousands of software products—almost as many as people in the entire company! However, on the Russian Soyuz space vehicle, we see a different way. One space tourist noted: “It’s sort of a functional minimalism.” You don’t need tons of gadgets, just what is operationally necessary. CIO’s, as IT strategists and gatekeepers for sound IT investing, should keep this principle in mind and spend corporate investment dollars wisely, strategically, and with careful selection criteria. We don’t need one of everything, especially when half of the investments are sitting in a closet somewhere collecting organizational dust!

  • Technology is 3-D—Our IT environment is still mostly stuck in a two-dimensional paradigm. Our user-interfaces, controls, and displays are still primarily flat. Of course, many have conceived of IT in a more real three-dimensional portrayal for example using 3-D graphics, modeling and simulation, holograms, virtual controls, and even virtual world’s in gaming and online. As CIO’s, we need to encourage the IT industry to continue rapid transformation from a 2-D to 3-D technology paradigm. As a corollary, in space where there is little to no gravity such as on the International Space Station, “It is cluttered, but then after a while you realize, well that’s true if you’re thinking in 2-D, but once your brain shift to 3-D, you realize that it isn’t.”

  • Think strategic and global—The CIO and his/her staff gets lot of calls everyday based on operational issues. From simple password resets to the dreaded “the network is down.” When firefighting, it is easy to fall into a purely operational way of thinking. How am I going to get this or that user back up. But getting all consumed by operational issues is counterproductive to long-term planning, strategy, and monumental shifts and leaps in technology and productivity. One space tourist looking out the window in space summed it up nicely for CIOs (and others) to get perspective: “You’re out there in space looking back at Earth, and in a way, you’re also looking back at your life, yourself, your accomplishments. Thinking about everything you own, love, or care for, and everything else that happens in the world. Thinking bigger picture. Thinking in a more global fashion.” Maybe every CIO need a picture window view from the Internation Space Station to keep perspective?


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