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Mars and Venus on the future of IT

It could be I’m overly sensitive to gender issues among the academic scientific elite, having moved to Cambridge, Mass., about the time then-Harvard President Larry Summers made his unfortunate remarks on whether women possess the same innate talent for science and math as men. But at this week’s MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, I sensed an interesting gender divide among the members of the panel of MIT academic stars. They took the stage to talk about the future of IT organizations and how to drive business innovation.

It was the women who were talking about power, control and the value of optimizing the status quo, and it was the men who were the touchy-feely ones. Call it the new “masculine mystique.”

If Tivoli Systems founder Frank Moss were an IT professional today, he would be focusing on the “extraordinary capability” of personal technology — social media, the mobile Web, affective computing — to understand his customers: what motivates them, how they think, what they like and don’t like.

“That’s what constitutes success in the 21st century,” said Moss, now director of the MIT Media lab, during a symposium session. Moss was quick to point out that his perspective is a departure from his Tivoli days. The purpose of IT then — his whole selling shtick for Tivoli — was “about putting IT and business people in control.”

“Your job is no longer about getting control,” Moss said. “It is about recognizing that most of the value in your company is actually being created outside your company, either by customers or by employees,” whose work lives are only partially defined by what they do inside the company, he said.

Nor is it enough just to bring in social media (although he urged any CIO in the audience who didn’t have a Facebook page or wasn’t monitoring Twitter to do so ASAP). That ship has sailed. The Millennials who work for his audience members’ companies are already communicating and connected, Moss said. The typical college student is as adept at managing huge amounts of data and information as IT departments were 10 and 15 years ago.

“I think the real question for information technology is, how do you change your job so that it is no longer about being in control, but in some sense optimizing these tools that your employees have been employing at your company and connecting them with customers,” Moss said.

Moss and Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of the school’s MIT Center for Digital Business, argued that IT professionals should dwell less on automating and controlling business processes — that work is done — and focus more on the people who are generating data and on ways to help them make sense of that data. Brynjolfsson talked up the value of controlled experiments to find out what customers really want, on a person-by-person basis.

On the other hand, Dr. Jeanne Ross, director of the Center for Information Systems Research at MIT Sloan, and Marilyn Smith, MIT’s new head of IS and technology, were not convinced that IT professionals should give up control anytime soon. Nor were they ready to pronounce that the productivity gains realized from automating and optimizing business processes are in the past. Many businesses run on legacy systems that can’t be thrown out, Smith noted, and would benefit from being optimized. Most organizations have “sacred transactions” that need to be gotten right, Ross said. Stable platforms give people the freedom to innovate.

“The great irony from everything we have learned about innovation is that the first thing we need is a solid platform that captures the stable part of the business, so you have something to build on when you are building your innovative processes,” Ross said. It was important, she said, “not to throw the baby out with the bath water.”

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