We are All Sociologists Now

Over the last few months, I have spoken with several chief information officers at a number of large, global companies. In some ways, CIOs are the much-maligned Sherpas of business. Sherpas because they are the ones looking past the fog, snow and ice to catch a glimpse of the future. Maligned because despite their efforts, many CIOs do not have a permanent place at the strategy table.

CIOs who are not thinking five to 10 years ahead are falling badly behind. And if they fall behind, catching up may be incredibly costly and perhaps even impossible. Metaphorically speaking, CIOs are in the business of building roads for cars that may never get off the drawing boards.

How do they do that?

What I learned from talking to these CIOs was interesting. First, to stay ahead, CIOs have to be careful observers of the changing ways that people work and consume, particularly young people.

Great CIOs, it was explained, are not necessarily nerds — though it doesn’t hurt to know your way around a sliver of silicon. What they must be are damn good sociologists. The success of the iPad, or of Facebook, did not depend on breakthrough technology. It did depend on penetrating insights into how people would like to interact with one another, the media and with their content.

CIOs said something else that was interesting. The average kid — O.K., maybe not the average kid — not only has better technology than most mature companies, but he or she also has it first. True, Carrefour or Wal-Mart or Banco Santander may have more technology — fatter storage, bigger pipes, many more servers — but the coolest technology is in the kids’ hands.

This matters to businesses that have to create a compelling shopping experience for, say, carpets, or dishwashers, or winter coats. Retailers, looking to sell to a growing customer base, need to understand that shoppers are growing up with Wii games and Kinect and with 100 million people online at once playing World of Warcraft. They have to learn what it means to get directions from 3-D maps on an iPhone. In 10 years, hundreds of millions of people who are playing with Xbox and Nintendo and Apple technologies will be in the work force. What will keep them interested? Engaged? Productive?

That’s what CIOs are thinking about, and that’s sociology.

The CIOs I talked to said they are contemplating a shopping experience that is different from what it was in the past. Today, increasingly, one person — call her a “field shopper” — is plying the aisles of a big-box store scanning bar codes and taking pictures of products with a smartphone. The images and scans are sent to the second shopper, who is at home and online. The at-home shopper is comparing prices, looking at inventories, reading reviews and blogs, and directing the field shopper to “open a door” or “feel a finish.” After doing this, it’s the at-home shopper — the one not in the store — who makes the decision to buy, go somewhere else, try something new or buy online.

How do you make a sale to someone not in the store?

Variations on this and other shopping models are emerging as technology continues to evolve. But, according to the CIOs, the cool new technology, the good stuff, is evolving outside the business.

The iPad, which sold 13 million units in less than a year, is beginning to find its way into companies. It’s being employed to display sales materials and repair manuals and to compare features. It’s finding its way into restaurants as menus and as aids to the bartender and the sommelier. The iPad made its way into the business world from the outside, from shoppers holding the device in their hands and bringing it into places of business.

How do you adapt and master changes that take place as rapidly as all that? By paying more attention to what people want and less to the technology. We’re all sociologists now.