Second in a two-part series by Vitalyst’s Paul Rigby, who joined thousands of IT leaders at the 2015 Gartner Symposium/ITexpo, held earlier this month in Orlando.

Upon learning that the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2015 would be held at a Disney World resort in Orlando, the cynic in me was amused by the thought of 7,000+ CIOs and IT leaders in attendance trading their reality for quintessential fantasy—swapping their suits and sport coats for Pluto T-shirts, their lattes for supersized sodas, and their daily pressures for a soothing morning mantra of “It’s a small world, after all.”

Photo: Facades of a Small World by MapHobbit is licensed by CC by 2.0

Photo: Facades of a Small World by MapHobbit is licensed by CC by 2.0

En route to the conference, I sat on the shuttle bus with 50 or so fellow attendees who were on cell phones dictating emails, discussing the meetings they were missing, passing on words of motivation to their kids setting out to school—or just blankly watching shuttle bus video screens that played the day’s agenda in a loop. Earbuds in and music shuffle on, I sat staring out the window at all the construction going on in the resort area. Little did I know that all this Disney World construction was a harbinger of Gartner’s predictions for the future.

As we joined the line of shuttles waiting their turn to unload their executive cargo at the doorstep of the Disney Dolphin Hotel, the iconic, reverbed, swampy guitar riff of The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” blasted through my earbuds. The Smiths, an ’80s band from a dirty old town in England’s Northwest, invading the pristine surroundings of Disney World. Another reminder of the contrast between reality and fantasy.

I had reviewed the conference agenda and was keen to learn more about two major themes: smart machines and, last year’s buzzword, the “bimodal” organization. Game face on, it was time to head to the first sessions.

The big draw early in the week was Gartner Fellow and Vice President Daryl Plummer. I’d heard earlier at Peter Sondergaard’s keynote that people were already getting in line to hear Plummer’s annual address on the top strategic predictions for the coming year. Standing at the back for the hour-long session was a small sacrifice for what was to come, as Plummer really set the tone for the next few days.

Plummer talked about Gartner’s predictions for a near future in which robots play a significant role—more workers will be supervised by “robobosses,” machines will be able to write case studies and other content, digital assistants will be capable of holding conversations with humans, and billions of connected “things” will be requesting support. But he put minds at rest about the rise of Skynet-style machines: “Robots are beginning to rise. Don’t think Terminator robots, but smart robots that will have the ability to learn things better, faster,” he said. (Read my previous post for more on Gartner’s 2016 predictions.)

Despite Plummer’s reassurances, it was hard not to feel a little unsettled leaving the hall. While part of me was thinking “I knew that. I knew the rise of the machines would be an inevitable consequence of the growth in a digital economy,” another part was more circumspect, thinking “Wow, it’s all happening at a fast pace. Most of those predictions will happen within the next two to four years.” But the prevailing mood was excitement.

Another dominant theme throughout the week was the increase in companies implementing bimodal IT, an approach that describes the practice of managing two separate modes of IT—one focused on agility and the other on stability. Who better to deliver a keynote on the topic than the chairman and CEO of General Electric, one of the oldest companies in the U.S.?

Gartner introduced GE’s Jeff Immelt with: “No voice is louder than that of your customer or an industrial giant. One of the oldest companies leading the pace toward digitization, ladies and gentlemen, Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt of GE.”

With that buildup, expectations were high and Immelt didn’t disappoint. When asked about the future direction of GE, he announced, “GE will be a top 10 software company in the next five years.”

GE? The folks who make kitchen appliances, trains, heavy manufacturing equipment… a software company?

In his inspiring keynote, Immelt described GE’s vision of embracing the digital world, and made reference to the themes of automation, robotics and predictive analytics. He ended his session with: “Man and machine perform better together than separately, and so I’m here to learn from other digital leaders. Seek me out.” I believe he meant it.

At the end of the week, as I left the conference area for the last time, I sat close to the driver on the shuttle bus. I enquired about all the construction. “Oh man, Disney is investing millions in new features for the parks,” he said. “Virtual reality, 3D tours, customized event management, software on your Disney app, drones to lift cast members, robot tour guides—you name it, they’re doing it.”

Perhaps the contrast between fantasy and reality isn’t so stark after all.

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