'Tis the season for IT self-service

Chatter about big data reveals IT self-service can be a gift for CIOs. Take command and control but keep the buffet open.

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The recent SearchCIO360° breakfast our company hosted for IT leaders was an informal affair. Coffee and a choice of pastries, fruit. No hovering waiters, self-service, please. Harvard professor Gary King was our speaker, talking about challenges related to analyzing big data.

One of the attendees, a high-level IT consultant working for a national retail chain, had a problem he wanted to vet. He told the gathered group that retailers like his employer understood the opportunity in big data. Collecting data to pinpoint what customers buy over time in order to predict what we might hanker for next is the cost of doing business these days -- at least for big chains that compete on price.

His was a proximity problem: For those customers who still shop offline, how to get the information to the store quickly enough to help make a sale? IT operations could pick up a customer's cell phone location a half-mile from the store but couldn't get the data there fast enough to make it useful. The infrastructure fell short. There were murmurs and nods from the IT leaders around the table.

Our esteemed speaker, who directs Harvard's Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences, considered the point. It wasn't so much a big data infrastructure bottleneck, but an analytics issue, said the professor, whose talk that morning was named, aptly enough, Big data is not about the data. After all, the store didn't require all the data its corporate data center collected on customers; it needed the data on the customer who had just walked in the door. What IT required was a better algorithm to get the store the right slice of data. From there, the human instinct for making a sale takes over -- right? -- and the business problem becomes one of finding the right salespeople, not moving data.  Except that it doesn't, as this gentleman from the national retail chain told me after the breakfast ended. That's because customers increasingly don't want to interact with salespeople on the floor, he said. They prefer consulting their smart devices on whether to buy or not to buy.

The data suggests we're more inclined to use our phones for browsing and our tablets for closing the deal, but so what? The point is our preference to transact by machine rather than face to face has become the norm.

 

The observation stuck with me. After work I mentioned this to the weight trainer at my local gym. Now focused on helping desk laborers like me meet the future in an upright position, he was for many years a trainer at high-end resorts. In other words, at the sorts of places people frequent with the expectation of getting great personal service. Had he noticed a similar trend? All the time, in recent years, he said. The biggest complaints were about valet car services. A guest would call the front desk and be assured his car would be out front in five minutes. Five minutes later, the guest would be standing under the hotel canopy, fuming because the car wasn't idling at the curb. Next time, could the hotel just send them a text message when the car was ready? "They'd wait for the car, as long as it was on their own time," he said. The imprecision of the human intervention drove them nuts.

Age of IT self-service

We love our smart devices. We're leaning on them more and more to get through the hurly-burly of our days, from summoning the car to doing the holiday shopping, as last week's Cyber Monday record sales showed. According to the IBM Digital Analytics benchmark, mobile traffic gained sharply, up 45% over last year and accounting for about one-third of all online traffic, if not a huge chunk of the sales (17%). The data suggests we're more inclined to use our phones for browsing and our tablets for closing the deal, but so what? The point is our preference to transact by machine rather than face to face has become the norm. We love self-service.

Google and Amazon -- with their digital grip on the pulse of the population -- have sussed out our new attitude toward machines, letting the cat out the bag about their major investments in robotics. Hollywood gets it. This year's crop of Oscar hopefuls includes Her, about a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his computer's operating system.

There's a legitimate debate about whether the digitization of human interaction bodes well for us mortals in the long run. But in the short run, it can only be a good thing for CIOs, because you are among the relative few who understand how information technology works. Lily Mok, the compensation expert at IT consultancy Gartner Inc., told me this week that the single biggest differentiator in CIO compensation is a CIO's ability to "harvest digital technology value for the business." The pay is higher for CIOs who possess this skill because of the impact they have on revenue and profits, she said. "This is the future for the CIO remaining relevant."

More CIO Matters columns on this topic

"You're preaching to the choir, lady," is what any CIO reading this is saying, no doubt. We've had to confront every manner of IT self-service for what seems like forever now -- from BYOD to self-service business apps to the all-you-can-consume cloud buffet of SaaS, PaaS and IaaS offerings that employees can browse via their smartphones and purchase on their tablets.

I am here to tell you that command and control and IT self-service can coexist. I host Thanksgiving most years. I dither over which of the accumulated recipes to reprise and which new ones to try, but in the main, I prepare the dishes I know my guests like. After much practice I've become a skilled project manager. I'm able to break down the tasks into discrete chunks and accurately predict what needs to be done when, from hors d'oeuvres to desserts, in order to have the meal go live more or less on time. Behind the scenes, I'm in command and control. But come dinner time, it's a different story. In a calculated break from the tradition of my childhood, when plates were passed up the table and the heads of the household served us, the food is laid out buffet-style so people can take control of their meals, pick and choose as they please, and go back as many times as their stomachs can bear.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, executive editor, or on Twitter at @ltucci.

This was first published in December 2013

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