When the future is unknown, SAS CIO says focus on the art of the possible

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One fascinating trend in IT is the explosion of sensor technology and the capacity to work with that information like never before. It's completely changing the conversation around how businesses move forward in the digital age.  

Sensors aren't new, of course. We’ve had sensors in manufacturing, for example. They played a big part of driving up the overall quality of vehicles we see on the road today. Nobody questions that vehicles will still operate after they’ve reached the 200,000-mile mark because manufacturers use sensors on both the equipment that makes the cars and inside the cars themselves. This dramatically changes the quality dynamic.  

What's new is that people are more comfortable with sensor technology now. For that reason, I think we’re about to see a massive explosion in what sensors can enable, and how that enablement will affect the future of IT.

So, whether we call it the Internet of Things, the cognitive era, machine learning, or simply analytics, CIOs should ask, “How are we going to prepare the IT organization and the enterprise for what’s necessary to transform a business that leverages sensors?” And, if your role as CIO is to provide leadership, then you also must ask, “What is our plan to rescale and train our staff to understand the art of the possible?” 

Applying analytics can reveal new outcomes

This will be messy. It's very exploratory to turn your lens away from just running transactions to leveraging analyses to improve business processes and uncover new outcomes. Prepare your organization for that exploration. It’s especially important to develop those IT organizations that have traditionally been very structured. It’s difficult to say, “We don’t know exactly what the outcome will be.” There’s a lot of talk about failing fast, but it's a harder conversation to have when you aren't quite sure how you're potentially failing.   

It’s a mistake to spend too much time figuring out the structure around how it’s all going to work. The business opportunity may pass by if you aren’t swift. It harkens back to the days of the enterprise data warehouse when many IT organizations wanted to spend a lot of time modeling and getting all the data together before they handed it off to the marketing group or the manufacturing group. Often, they didn’t have the right data, or the problem had moved on by the time they got there.  

To combat this tendency, don't ask questions about the future from a sensor perspective. Focus on the outcomes instead. If technology teams are focused just on the transaction – how they plug up the sensor, how they get the data from the sensor – there won’t be progress. We’ll just be data collectors, and somebody else will turn the data into value.  

Focus on the art of the possible

What CIOs can do while the outcomes are still unknown is focus their teams on preparing for what might be coming. Help them understand how to apply analytics and machine learning. Begin thinking about how you’re going to play in this cognitive space and build the skills to understand it. 

You don’t have to own all the expertise, but you must ensure your team is versed in the art of the possible. That way, when they get a question about optimizing the flow of sensor information, for example, they understand what the optimization techniques are for that particular challenge. 

It is very easy to get excited about the influx of sensors. In the near term, for example, I’m going to have a bunch of employees connected to sensors to monitor their health so we can establish health patterns. I'm also considering enabling autonomous vehicles on our headquarters campus. We’ll use a huge mesh network to collect all that data. 

But thinking that way alone puts us back in low-value, transactional territory. What's exciting about the trend toward sensor technology is that we can now ask and answer new questions about employee health, employee mobility, and employee power consumption in a new way to directly affect the bottom line. 

In this new era of analytics, when you have a place to try, fail, explore, move the ideas that work into production and throw the others away, then start all over again, you are preparing your organization to capitalize on the art of the possible no matter what the future holds.

Keith Collins, Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer (CIO) at SAS, is passionate about delivering on the promise of Big Analytics as the key to unlocking the potential of Big Data. Prior to becoming CIO at SAS, Keith directed SAS’ Research and Development strategies, including 13 years as Chief Technology Officer.