Oct 13 2020

CDW Tech Talk: Remote Work Has Changed Tech Leaders’ Jobs, Probably for Good

CIOs, CTOs and others who run IT departments are now better described as chief cognition officers.

When business shutdowns forced rapid conversions to all-remote work in May, many technology leaders understood quickly that their lives had changed, at least for a while. But did they know that the very nature of their jobs — indeed, even their job descriptions — would also change, perhaps forever?

That’s exactly what’s happening at businesses around the world, argued Ben Hammersley, a technology futurist and host of the television series Cybercrimes with Ben Hammersley. Speaking at the CDW Tech Talk, “Maximizing IT Resilience with Adaptive Security and Infrastructure,” where industry experts discussed modern cybersecurity and risk management issues, Hammersley argued that CIOs — as well as CTOs, CISOs and everyone else working in tech leadership — must reconcile themselves to the fact that their job now is to empower coworkers to think and to act; essentially, to become “chief cognition officers.”

“The core function of IT is to provide the cognitive framework in which the organization works, and indeed that cognitive framework, in many ways, is the organization,” he said. “The organization is people using tools to perform a business function.” The tools they use and the conditions under which they use them largely determine their success, he said.

READ MORE: Learn how to detect and respond to cybersecurity attacks faster.

The Shift to Remote Work Changed the Nature of Businesses

In the days immediately following the migration to remote work, three big shifts took place, Hammersley said:

  • The digitization of all business processes: Anything that previously relied on physical infrastructure, such as in-person meetings or printed documents, now had to happen on a screen, meaning each process required a digital solution.
  • An enormous expansion of digital tools: Collaboration tools — a novelty at many organizations — became the primary way people communicated. Solutions once regarded as “hipster IT things” became mainstream tools overnight.
  • A vast expansion of the threat landscape: As people shifted to home offices, their personal devices and the cloud-based tools they used to work and collaborate became subject to attack, dramatically increasing the number of ways organizations could be breached.

The migration away from physical togetherness is quickly producing cultural changes within businesses, and those changes will likely endure beyond the pandemic, Hammersley said. Organizations are increasingly defined by the digital — the code that underlies their business applications and the actions workers take based on documented instructions.

“When everything moves to remote work, everything the organization does is turned into either an application or a set of instructions – either code or documentation,” he said. “And that combination of code and documentation now is the organization."

Four Emerging Post-Pandemic Business Risks

Because IT leaders are responsible for managing the digital workflow, they now find themselves tasked not merely with supplying work tools, but also with guiding how their colleagues actually think about their work and the conditions under which they perform it. That requires them to consider four new risks most businesses now face:

  • Bad inputs: The computer science term “garbage in, garbage out” is increasingly relevant to businesses as they transform into what Hammersley calls “hybrid cognitive systems.” If all the thinking, collaboration and creation that organizations perform is done through a screen, “then you are responsible for all the info — for all the fuel — your employees are using to think with,” he told IT leaders. “We need to come to terms with the fact that we’re responsible for what’s coming through those screens.”
  • Bad mental models: This has to do with the way people receive and think about data. The mental models people are using to process information may be faulty, creating an opportunity to guide them in the right direction.
  • Bad environment: Businesses must think carefully about the physical environment people are working in and the tools they’re using. How many monitors do your employees need? At home they might be using one, while at the office they had two or three — and studies show that more monitors make people more productive and help them think more clearly. In fact, everything from poor lighting and the wrong office furniture to too many notifications from email and instant messaging apps can cause significant work disruptions. “We need to think about the cognitive risks, not just with the IT infrastructure but also the physical infrastructure,” he said.
  • Bad outputs: All of the above can lead to poor work quality and reduced productivity.

The bottom line for IT leaders is that their job has shifted from being providers of IT solutions to supporters of the “cognitive frameworks” within which employees either succeed or fail.

“Now, instead of just looking after data and apps, as a CIO, you’re looking after the entire organization,” Hammersley said. “So I say the CIO and CTO, CISO, etc., are all the same person and should be called chief cognitive officer: the person whose job it is to help people think.”

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Getty Images/ Petar Chernaev