The Death of Distance vs the Cult of Complexity

25/02/2015 12:17 GMT | Updated 27/04/2015 10:59 BST

It's almost 20 years since economist and journalist Frances Cairncross coined the term the 'death of distance' to describe how telecoms, the internet and wireless technology were overcoming geography as a barrier to communication.

With more than a third of the world's population expected to have a smartphone by 2017 - and with conference calls, shared filing systems and online collaboration already commonplace - there's no doubt that technology is removing the traditional barrier of location. Indeed, technology sits behind all ten of Thomas L. Friedman's 'flatteners' in The World is Flat.

Even though borders are collapsing in the face of globalisation and the internet, the idea of a global village is not yet reality. Despite the communications revolution, we still often find ourselves - even within a single organisation - miles apart from each other.

This may sound counter-intuitive - given my role as the CEO of a global firm that provides connectivity to organisations around the world - but that's because on its own technology achieves nothing.

Technology cannot exist in a vacuum. To unlock its benefits, especially within a large organisation, it needs to be implemented and used correctly. And alongside technology are the people who use it and the processes they develop and operate.

It's this mix of people and process that creates the 'cult of complexity' that challenges so many organisations.

We are all creatures of habit. So any new technology that's introduced has to overcome an instinctive aversion to change. Other problems that could hold back technological uptake include outdated skills and knowledge, as well as poor internal relationships and communications. These problems need to be managed if an IT project is to succeed.

On a global scale, complexity is exacerbated by the need to push change across multiple sites in multiple regions, amplified by cultural considerations, diverse operating polices and self-interest.

Company interest or self-interest?

The fiefdoms and office politics within large organisations - so beautifully depicted in shows such as The Sopranos, House of Cards and Game of Thrones - are powerful conservative forces that act against simplicity and transparency.

You need only look to the original Luddites to understand the conflict that can arise. Those favoured by the status quo fight to preserve it. People, departments and regions will often point to the complexities of local or regional regulations as a reason to resist change.

Such restrictions shouldn't be used to hold back a company, but as opportunities to reassess how it operates and to embrace new ways of working to achieve its goals.

When faced with a Darwinian moment -- to adapt or die in a changing environment -- the only victor is evolution. Change fast enough, and the organisation thrives. Fail to adapt, and the organisation loses. Either way, it's evolution that wins.

At the end of last year, we surveyed almost 1,000 senior IT decision makers in eight regions and six different industry sectors worldwide. The resulting report, Art of Connecting: creativity and the modern CIO, argues that the role of the chief information officer (CIO) is changing, creating new opportunities for those who adapt.

Technology - the core skill of CIOs - is the comparatively straight-forward piece of the uneasy alliance between technology, people and process. The ability to think and act creatively is the most in-demand skill for CIOs in the emerging landscape. It need not be a concern that only four per cent of CIOs hold a humanities-based degree; there are many ways to be creative. What counts is the gift to marry technology with people and processes.

That, for instance, can mean giving people more freedom over the technology they use. In a world of cloud computing and software-as-a-service, CIOs have an unprecedented opportunity to take a leading role in their organisations by giving power away; something which may seem like a paradox.

Shadow IT is the name given to the growing practice of departments, such as finance or marketing, buying their own IT solutions. According to the report, it's now commonplace, with 76 per cent of CIOs seeing it within their organisations.

At first glance, shadow IT might be considered a threat to the status of CIOs. But instead, our research shows it's inspired a CIO renaissance, with creative CIOs using their unique view of their organisation to nurture innovative uses of technology; whether it's a specialist solution for a particular department or a pan-organisational IT transformation project.

In my view, the death of distance will not be realised through a command and conquer approach to bringing geographies together, but by reducing the distance between people and decision-making.