Canadian CIOs share creative ways of handling information avalanche

Nick Bontis wasn’t totally surprised his two-year-old’s first word was “Blackberry,” since the director of the Hamilton-based Institute for Intellectual Capital Research Inc. usually has one glued to his palm.

The popularity of the mobile device is just one sign of a world where information exchange is accelerating at a break-neck pace, Bontis says.
Technology has infused Canadian society with the ability to call up information on demand.

“The last thing that people do before they go to bed is put their Blackberry in a cradle and charge it,” he tells ITBusiness.ca.

“The first thing they do when they wake up is take it off that cradle and check their e-mail.”

As the expert on intellectual capital spoke about the CIO’s struggle to keep pace with the flood of information entering businesses, the audience at CIO Association of Canada’s (CIOCAN) peer forum in Toronto nodded their heads in acknowledgement.

Themed “CIO 2020: Business Leader or Dinosaur,” the forum took stock of what role CIOs will come to play in the near future.

That role will largely be helping their organizations cope with the massive influx of information as the Internet continues to expand in the developed and developing world, Bontis says.

The job will be about filtering out the junk, and creating productivity so CIOs can enjoy more family time.

A quick poll of the CIOs in the room revealed that 63 per cent of them get between 50 and 149 e-mails in a day.

“We have to understand how we can filter through all of this,” Bontis says. “It’s going to get way, way worse. One hundred e-mails a day is nothing like what it will be five years from now.”

The prospect of information overload getting even worse in the coming years doesn’t faze CIOCAN president Catherine Boivie.

She’s confident her peers can adapt quickly enough and will become even more relevant to business requirements.

“CIOs will become business leaders who know technology,” she says. “They’ll know more about the strategic part of the business and talk more about how technology can enable value for business.”

This is one area where CIOs can improve, Bontis told the crowd.

Too often, IT departments respond to questions about business value with answers that include industry buzz words such as “collaboration” and “integration.”

CIOs need to help their company absorb as much knowledge as possible from the information avalanche, or risk being swept away.

Working with other departments will be critical for this, the Bontis says.

He says human resources departments need to hire knowledge sharers, not knowledge hoarders, he adds.

Training and development also play a critical role as to what a CIO can accomplish inside their company.

We need to prepare for a time when information is produced “faster than we can absorb and understand it,” Bontis warns.

The CIO must tackle the challenge of helping their employees handle the onslaught.

He cites examples to illustrate the magnitude of that challenge.

Library scientists have calculated that in the 1930s, the cumulative recorded information base in the world doubled every 30 years.  

In the 1970s, it doubled every seven years, and by 2020 it will double every 11 hours.

“This has fundamental implications for competitive advantage, intelligence, and intellectual capital development,” Bontis says.  “CIOs are responsible for maintaining and sustaining the development of the absorptive capacity of the organization.”

This can be accomplished by providing direction to company employees on how to filter their knowledge, and then leaving it up to the individual to select the filters they put in place, says Boivie, who is also senior vice-president of IT at Burnaby, B.C.-based Pacific Blue Cross.

 CIOs could hold coaching sessions and give simple instructions to their co-workers.

“By coaching management on how to use technologies efficiently, you can create more time for other business initiatives,” she says.

Filtering technology is a simple and effective way to save time.

Using Google Alerts to do automatic searching and Microsoft Outlook’s rules feature are a couple examples given by Bontis.

Also a professor of strategic management at Hamilton-based McMaster University, Bontis makes his students send e-mails to him with the course code set as the first four characters of the subject line so they are automatically sorted into folders.

The messages are also scanned with an algorithm searching for questions about grades or test scores. If so, an e-mail is automatically returned with the most up-to-date information about that student’s grade.

“I never have more than 10 e-mails in my inbox at one time,” Bontis says. “And my wife will vouch for that.”

With smart approaches to filtering technology, CIOs across Canada can help their organizations prepare for the next era of the knowledge economy, he adds.

He said by fostering company productivity and employee efficiency, they would actually get to go home to their families at close of the work day, instead of sorting through e-mails.

“At the end of the day, that’s really what counts.”  

Perhaps then Bontis can pay more attention to his two-year-old son, who has resorted to grabbing his father’s Blackberry and disposing of it in the toilet on at least one occasion.

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