The future is unknown, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be planned for. At a moment when the role of the information technology department has never been so scrutinised, the challenge for today’s CIOs is to be ready for a diverse range of possible outcomes.

This is no mean feat: the Accenture Institute for High Performance has identified more than 60 forces that may have an impact on the agenda for enterprise IT and the future of the IT function.

Many executives are eager to change the IT organisation.

In our survey of 152 senior business executives and 162 IT executives, more executives singled out IT than any other as the function they would most like to rebuild from scratch.

But how does one satisfy that desire without falling into the trap of basing an enterprise IT strategy on a vision of the future that may turn out to be wholly inaccurate?

Forces for change
The first step is to identify and concentrate on those forces for change likely to be the most significant drivers of the agenda.

We believe there are eight: 

 - The rise of consumer IT such as smart phones and social networks
 - New competitive threats from emerging market multinationals and internet-based models
 - The vulnerability of organisations to cyber attacks
 - Greater pressure for operational efficiency
 - More decision-making driven by data
 - New approaches to innovation
 - The impact of geopolitics and regulation
 - The possibility of disruptive disasters

Consider those ideas carefully. Many of them are obvious forces for good and genuine opportunities for businesses to add value and to boost the bottom line.

Others, such as the rise of consumer IT, are cultural themes that both transcend and affect the work place.

Some are clearly negative forces, with real potential to damage businesses that have not prepared for them.

The mixed nature of these drivers requires CIOs to question an assumption that is often made about the future for enterprise IT: that it will evolve in a flat and increasingly connected world where data and computer intelligence grows exponentially.

That is certainly one vision of the future, but it is not the only one.

Some policymakers and business leaders fear the worst, given the geopolitical shocks caused by the financial crisis and global economic slowdown.

The IMF’s Christine Lagarde has warned the world could slip into a 1930s moment. A moment where trust and co-operation break down and countries turn inward.

Mapping scenarios
CIOs must therefore consider some radically different scenarios as they plan for change. If globalisation and connectivity continue apace the challenge will be to invest in IT that keeps the company ahead of its competitors.

Alternatively, even in an increasingly globalised world, consumers and companies may become more wary of online connections.

In which case expect security to become the dominant IT issue and internet users to steer clear of public clouds and social networks.

What if protectionism takes over from globalisation but technology remains trusted?

Companies may then expect IT to help them reorganise their businesses on a more localised basis.

And what if the world becomes both protectionist and technophobic? Then IT will be expected to focus on security, to withdraw from the internet in favour of private networks, and to operate locally.

All of these scenarios, and more, are possible and plausible. Betting on only one of them is misguided at best and irresponsible at worst.

But ensuring an organisation is ready for the future is not a question of organisational structures or technical architecture; rather, it requires a different way of thinking and planning for the evolution of enterprise IT.

New thinking about IT
CIOs must begin to think more broadly: to consider the future of technology without being too techno-centric.

They will consider key technological trends, but will also take account of social, political, economic and demographic factors.

To facilitate this, CIOs will need to open up the process of planning the evolution of their enterprise IT.

The input of IT professionals will still be required, but alongside contributions from many others: non-IT professionals, employees, customers and suppliers, for example.

At the same time, CIOs must be careful not to miss out on the opportunities created by innovation and new technologies.

Context-based cloud services, social IT, platform-as-a-service technologies and crowdsourcing are all examples of areas where new business possibilities are already being created. CIOs must be eager to explore and test new ideas.

In addition, there is the question of the role of the CIO himself. In some businesses, it will be appropriate for the CIO to be visionary and transformational.

At others focused on cost and security, the role may be more modest, and better suited to a manager than a strategist.

These are not simple issues, but they must be confronted. For we are at a crossroads, with many possible futures for enterprise IT ahead. Which will you plan to take?

Jeanne G. Harris is executive research fellow and a senior executive at the Accenture Institute for High Performance in Chicago.  Allan E. Alter is a Boston-based research fellow with the Institute.

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