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Gartner: 4 Disruptive Trends Changing the Future of IT

Gartner predicts a future full of disruptions. Will your institutional IT organization be ready to exploit the opportunities?

Like volcanic activity creating new islands in the Pacific, the education sector is continually rebuilding itself through the latest disruptions in learning, instructional practices and business models. The same is happening within the IT department, as users — faculty, staff and students — bring new technologies into play.

Recently, IT research firm Gartner held an online talk to share its predictions for disruptive trends that are worth taking into account as IT leaders plan for the future. As Managing VP and Gartner Fellow Daryl Plummer explained, "These trends are going to change the way you think about a lot of things and do a lot of things." However, the changes will also encompass constructive possibilities, which could turn into new opportunities for savvy CIOs.

Disruption 1: The Digital Industrial Revolution

When, earlier in 2013, a Stratasys printer was used to print out a plastic gun that could be fired multiple times using a design plan that was later made publicly available, the world was on notice that now "we can make things in our basement that used to have to be done in our factories by manufacturers," said Plummer.

In the same period doctors from the University of Michigan printed a "bio-absorbable" plastic device that could hold a child's trachea open, allowing him to breathe normally. "Full resorption" of the new splint is expected to occur within three years. In this new category of usage, called "3D bioprinting," 3D printers can produce human cells and organs to replace malfunctioning ones.

Both types of uses for 3D printing are stark symbols of the "digital industrial revolution," Plummer noted, which, like the first industrial revolution, is "shaping up" to change the way we build things, what we do for work, where we live and how we thrive in the areas of family and health.

The impact of 3D printing alone will have "wide-ranging effects," Plummer said. Besides the obvious need for reassessment of laws regarding how 3D-printed weapons will be controlled in the world, for example, there will also be a movement away from manufacturing for economies of scale to manufacturing as a one-off proposition.

That in turn could alter Chinese economic might, he added. "Economies of scale have pushed China to a position of economic power that is almost unheard of in the modern world. That is going to be affected by the subject of 3D printing. What happens when we can print those things that were manufactured in China in our basement or in a little store down the street, where we all go and print them on demand? What happens when the manufacturing, the distribution and the logistics chains all collapse into themselves?"

Another area of impact: copyright. 3D printing, which uses product designs that exist in digital form, will become an easy way to counterfeit physical goods. By 2018, Gartner predicts, 3D printing will result in the loss of at least $100 billion globally per year in intellectual property.

Just as biomedicine has had to sort out the ethical arguments regarding the use of human stem cells, Gartner predicts that by 2016, the medical community will grapple with a "global debate about regulating the technology or banning [3D printing] for both human and nonhuman use," Plummer said.

What impact could 3D printing have on IT? For one, new strategies will be needed to validate whether or not a product is genuine. Also, said Plummer, we'll need better ways to protect the templates and blueprints behind the products we print. Finally, organizations — including research institutions — should expect to develop policies for acceptable research parameters in bioprinting.

Disruption 2: Digital Business

The enterprise has begun to "accessorize" its operations with digital assets and capabilities. Activities formerly done by people or on paper or with a simple computer program are now being handled through digital accessories "We're moving from a world where people behave the way computers work and entering a world where computers work the way people behave," Plummer explained. "The machine follows you. The machine does it the way you want to do it. The machine anticipates your expectations and gives you your sense of comfort rather than you having to sit at a certain machine or a certain network. That's what digital business is all about."

In this new world, for example, the digital use of crowds through crowdsourcing begins to play a larger role in new initiatives. Crowds will help figure out what projects should be undertaken, and they'll help fund those efforts through Kickstarter-like mechanisms. The technology for supporting crowdsourcing endeavors is getting better, Plummer said, citing the ready availability of platforms that allow people to provide input and get feedback in real time within organizations.

What CIOs have to start thinking about, he said, is how to use crowds inside their own organizations to solve business problems. "Instead of building teams of people that are pre-structured, why not start thinking about using ad hoc teams? Set up the subject, the questions you're trying to answer. Get them out into a social environment like a Yammer and say, 'Hey, let's get the crowd's opinion.'" But making the software available isn't the end of the work, he added. It will also require "building the right culture to support this bottom-up contribution." Without "employees who care," these social business initiatives are likely to fail.

The digitization of the enterprise is also treading into issues of personal privacy. "You can go on Facebook and find out more about a person today than you could with months of study 40 years ago," Plummer said.

That leads to an interesting conjunction. On one hand, consumers will increasingly begin to "collect, track and barter their personal data" in exchange for cost savings, convenience and customized offerings. On the other hand, digital security of personal data is getting more difficult for organizations to guarantee.

In that regard, noted Plummer, Gartner predicts that by 2020 enterprises and governments will fail to protect three quarters of sensitive data and will therefore "declassify and grant broad and public access to it." While that prospect may be considered "blasphemy" in the IT world, he stated, it's backed up by current practice. IT departments are in the habit of calling much of the data under their care and management "sensitive." The reality is that "we treat all of it as sensitive because we don't have the money or time to separate it out."

To demonstrate what he meant, Plummer called into question a statement such as, "Our medical data is sensitive." "All of it? Really? Are you telling me the stuff individuals are sharing on their own social sharing sites is sensitive when you have it, but not when they share it in a social community?"

In reality, the growth of data "exceeds the protective mechanisms we have for it," he said. "If we try to protect it all, we will fail. And by the way, we are already failing. We are not protecting the sensitive data we think we are protecting."

A better approach for ensuring protection, Plummer advised, is to establish what truly is sensitive data and figure out how to share the other information for political or economic advantage.

Disruption 3: Smart Machines

Smart machines are already available that automate decision-making based on data they have accumulated. "They make decisions faster, more accurately, maybe more consistently than we can," said Plummer. As current examples he pointed to cars that park themselves, surgical robots that assist in surgery and auto-pilots that can land a plane in certain situations. "These things are only going to grow. They're getting more possible. They're acceptable. You see commercials with automated assist capabilities all the time. They look cool to us now. As little as 15 years ago, they probably scared us to death."

Gartner predicts that by 2024, at least a tenth of those activities that are "potentially injurious to human life" will require mandatory use of smart systems that can't be overridden by humans. Organizations working in the field of "smart adviser" development will enjoy "substantive competitive advantage," Plummer declared.

The job for CIOs and IT leaders, he added, will be to help identify where and how the deployment of automated systems might improve product safety or enhance competitive attractiveness.

As a follow-on to that, Gartner believes that by 2020 most knowledge workers' career paths will be "disrupted by smart machines in positive and negative ways." On the positive side, personal virtual assistants (think Siri) will be able to handle decision-making for us. On the negative side, a smart machine might be able to prove it could do a worker's job better than he or she can, which could put that person out of work.

One twist to this is that smart machines will need human teachers in order to learn. By 2017, Gartner reported, a tenth of all computers will be "learning rather than processing." People will have to use "deep neural network techniques" to feed those computers patterns of information and developers will need to construct "a lot of programming algorithms" to power the smartness in the machine.

As a result, IT organizations should begin looking for developers who have skills in programming smarter macros and start thinking about how to train developers to train computers — as opposed to programming computers. "That's going to be an interesting transition over the next 10 years," Plummer observed.

Disruption 4: Internet of Things

The final disruption that will upend IT in coming months and years is the "Internet of Things," where sensors are placed inside every physical object and connect wirelessly to the Internet or other entities in order to collect and share data about the object and about our use of the object. These sensors will not necessarily be controlled by humans, said Plummer.

"Wearables" — Google Glass, the Samsung Galaxy Gear watch and Nike+ Fuelband SE — fall into this category. On the commercial side, Gartner predicts that by 2020 consumer data collected from wearable devices will drive 5 percent of sales among the top global companies.

What IT needs to ask itself is how wearables will affect planning for future applications, just as smartphones and tablets have done. Plummer warned not to view wearables and sensor usage as replacements for existing technology, but as drivers for new use cases.

In fact, every form of disruption should spur IT leaders to take more risks and look for ways to transform the organization, not just enhance or extend what's already in place, he emphasized. "Enterprises have a tendency to figure out first why something won't work then back their way into what will work. You have to turn that around," Plummer said. "You have to shoot for the stars to reach the moon and [figure out] why something will work first."

As an example he pointed to cloud computing. IT organizations moved infrastructure to the cloud as a means of running workloads. "That is nice, but it's only enhancement. It's just moving the workload." Better to figure out how to get rid of the workload altogether by using somebody else's capabilities.

IT must take on the role of broker, acting as an intermediary between technology and the business functions of the organization, helping to "integrate, aggregate or customize it, instead of trying to control it." Do that with your technology choices," he said, "and you will have a better chance of getting a first mover advantage."

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