Blockchain, AI, machine learning: What do CIOs really think are the most exciting tech trends?

There's always plenty of tech hype around; tech leaders explain which innovations they are actually excited about.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

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Gartner says worldwide IT spending will reach $3.7tr in 2018, a 4.5 percent increase on 2017. The analyst says projects related to digitisation, big data, and artificial intelligence (AI) will be some of the key drivers for growth. But which areas of IT innovation are really the most exciting for technology leaders? Five CIOs give their opinions.

1. Building great recommendation engines

Brad Dowden, CIO at recruitment specialist Airswift, says AI is the most exciting area in IT right not, but he adds an important caveat. While the potential of the technology is huge, Dowden believes too many companies are badging all kinds of developments as AI.

"They're often just algorithms that are going to solve a set business problem," he says. "Providers are jumping on the AI bandwagon to sell their products. I haven't seen many companies doing proper AI yet. Even the big players aren't there."

Yet Dowden also recognises the opportunity. He says the power to create strong recommendation engines, in areas like retailing and recruitment, is possible. "In the future, there will be a chance for a firm like ours to look at behaviour patterns and know that an individual is likely to look for a new job in the future," says Dowden.

However, that day has not arrived yet. When it does, says Dowden, the rise of automation won't lead to the death of work. "Instead, AI will augment human relationships," he says. "All the leg work will be automated, you'll end up with better quality leads and opportunities, and your skilled sales people will be able to focus on one-to-one engagements. It's exciting but there's a long way to go."

2. Using machine learning to create profitability

Digital advisor Andrew Marks helps businesses use data-led insight to make the most of the information they hold. In his previous role as CIO of Tullow Oil, Marks worked hard to create a value-drive approach to technology leadership. He believes IT leaders will be able to make even better decisions through a new era of big data.

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"What's key is machine learning, which is best-thought of as the automated use of analytics," says Marks. "When you can gather far more data points about the performance of your organisation, or the assets within the business, and the behaviour of your customers, then machine learning allows you to make automated decisions quickly."

Marks says the ability to make decisions automatically in real time is an exciting opportunity for all IT leaders. "The average CIO should be able to understand, articulate, and implement the technology in almost any business setting," he says.

"Done well, machine learning can start to drive huge profitability in organisations, particularly in sectors like retailing, fast-moving consumer goods, and hospitality. Machine learning can provide a big advantage in industries where timing provides a critical advantage. A different style of thinking is refreshing and can bring rewards."

3. Bringing people and technology together to boost efficiency

Julian Burnett, CIO at retailer House of Fraser, has an alternative take to some of his peers. "From my perspective, the most exciting thing that's happening in IT is going to sound peculiar, but it really is about work around the supply chain and the combination of physical and digital elements," he says.

Burnett says his firm is looking for the first time at the opportunities of combining physical machinery with people and technology in integrated live processes. House of Fraser is using advanced technology in combination across both the shop-floor and its warehouses.

He gives the example of a project with specialist provider Dematic. The initiative is helping House of Fraser investigate how to integrate voice picking technologies in multiple languages. These technologies will support seasonal workers that use machinery in the firm's warehouses. Burnett says the potential impact is clear.

"What I would say is that the power of the possibility is amazing when you combine technologies," he says. "We're already seeing that effect. That combination of physical and digital is where the power of technology comes to life in retail."

4. Adopting advanced technology to boost citizen care

Aaron Powell has spent the past two years pushing a digital transformation agenda in his role as chief digital officer at NHS Blood and Transplant. Powell says several interesting trials are currently taking place at his organisation, including around the use of predictive analytics and the likely waiting time for an organ.

"Predictive capability will have a significant impact, as will the ability to take advanced imaging," he says. "In organ donation, the ability to take images and send those to the transplanting team in a more intelligent way could be huge, particularly when it comes to knowing what types of situation health teams need to prepare for during an implant."

Powell says managing blood donations is a logistics-based process. He says the ability to use sensors to track the use of equipment will have an impact. While developments in blockchain could be useful, Powell is wary of hype. "We've looked at blockchain and we don't see an obvious use case right now," he says.

"I know there are blood donation services in other parts of the world, where the supply chain is more fragmented, and executives at these organisations are looking at how they can use the distributed ledger to trace all the various elements securely. That's less of a problem for us because we have more control over our end-to-end process."

5. Building a digital platform for future transformation

As director of informatics at St Helens & Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, Christine Walters is using technology to improve the day-to-day operations of her healthcare organisation and the patients it serves. Like Powell, she recognises the creation of a trusted digital platform is more important than leading-edge change.

"We're often behind as a sector because of the nature of what we do," she says. "We're looking after poorly patients and it's important that we take technology that is reliable and proven. We tend to be more risk averse and cautious, so what we see as exciting might not be true of other areas of business."

Download now: Digital transformation: A CXO's guide

The trust has introduced an electronic prescribing system, from specialist supplier JAC, and an electronic modified early warning system, which alerts clinical staff to patients that require priority treatment. Walters is also leading the introduction of a new electronic order communication system. Other advanced technologies could be introduced, yet Walters is eager to proceed with caution.

"We're keen to get patients to help look after their own care and to monitor their progress through wearable technology," she says. "But we've still got some way to go in the NHS and we still need to ensure we invest in foundational areas, such as investments in digitisation to help break the reliance on paper-based processes."

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