February 22nd, 2012
When I started working on my CIO’s at Work book, I naively assumed that I would be able to talk to any CIO I wanted to, and that my main task would be to avoid getting overwhelmed by an infinite number of talkative CIO’s. That turned out not to be true — partly (to my surprise), because it was a lot more difficult to track these folks down than I thought it would be. But even when I found them, many of them were reluctant — sometimes beligerently so — to talk to me, or just about anyone else outside their corporate boundary, for reasons that I’ll summarize below.
The difficulty of tracking them down in the first place was a surprise, and it’s something you might want to experiment with: can you find the CIO of a company that you think is doing a particularly good or bad job with its use of IT? Or, for that matter, the CIO of a company that has recently gotten a lot of bad press because of an embarrassing failure that looks like it was caused by, or exacerbated by, its IT systems?
Almost all CIO’s have a title of “Vice President” or better; some are members of the Board of Directors of their organization, and many report directly to the CEO or COO. So you should be able to go the company website, and track down a page or two that shows mug shots of the Board, or the “executive team,” and you might even be optimistic enough to assume that you’ll find a phone number or a hyperlink that you can click to send an e-mail message directly to the CIO you want to contact.
The reality is that many companies have no public information about the identity, or even the existence of their Chief Information Officer. If you try googling “CIO of XYZ Corp”, you might find a page that tells you who that person was back in 1999, or that the CIO of XYZ Corp has just left, and is on his way to a new assignment at ABC Corp (which you may or may not be interested in). Or you might find the names of half a dozen “assistant” CIO’s who deal with various subsidiaries or geographical regions, but who report to an über-CIO whom you can’t find. As for getting their phone numbers or e-mail addresses … good luck!
What surprised me even more was how many CIO’s that I did manage to track down were uninterested in talking to me about how IT was being used in their organizations. I could understand why a company recovering from a scandal would want to hide its CIO (and probably all the rest of its executives, too!) from the public; and I could understand why the CIO of a company like General Motors would politely decline, citing the hectic pressure of helping to build the “new” General Motors after its emergence from bankruptcy. But several others — including not only the CIOs, but also their administrative assistants, and their public relations/communications contacts inside and outside the company — stonewalled or ignored my repeated attempts to communicate with them via phone, fax, or e-mail.
After several such unsuccessful efforts, it finally dawned on me: in some of these organizations, strategic use of IT really is considered a competitive advantage. If these firms really do believe that to be the case, why on earth would they want to share that competitive advantage with anyone else? Why would they want to discuss it; why would they even want to acknowledge its existence? It would almost be like the CIA or NSA opening up all of its secret files for public review and discussion. We’re no longer surprised that a company like Apple keeps the engineering details, as well as the software features, of its next-generation iPhone and iPad a secret all through the R&D and development phase; why should we be any more surprised that it keeps most of its IT strategies and assets hidden, too?
At the same time, the secretive approach towards IT that these organizations exhibit reminds me of “closed” countries like China and North Korea — or, more recently, Middle East countries like Tunisia and Egypt, where attempts to shut down the Internet essentially shut down the country’s economy. Wall Street financial firms are not the CIA, and in the long run, I believe their attempts to seal themselves off from the increasingly interconnected Internet-enabled world will prove to be a failed strategy. Of course, a cynic would observe that in the long run, we’ll all be dead — and between now and then, there may well be some vast fortunes to make or protect by keeping this information hidden.
Meanwhile, some organizations are clearly proud of what they’ve done, and what they plan to do in the future, with information technology. They’re not going to share their “secret sauce” proprietary algorithms (e.g., the CIO of Google didn’t offer to share its page-ranking algorithm with me when I interviewed him, any more than Coca-Cola would have shared the detailed recipe for its soft drink) and they’re not going to deposit all of their software in an open-source code repository. But companies like these realize that their employees — who often number in the tens of thousands, sometimes even the hundreds of thousands — represent a society of their own, and that it’s a positive thing to encourage their employees to interact with customers, suppliers, vendors, and business partners in the outside world.
Equally important, most of the companies I spoke with have finally accepted the wisdom of the vintage-2001 The Clue Train Manifesto: the end of business as usual, with 95 theses describing the new “reality” of networked marketplace. A decade ago, it sounded quite radical to suggest that “Markets do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate firewall” (thesis number 62), or that “Companies need to realize their markets are often laughing. At them.” (thesis number 2). But today, more and more companies realize that the best way to confront these theses (which have turned out to be realities, not abstract theories) is to be honest and open, and to be pervasively and intimately involved in the activities of their markets and their customers. As the authors prophesied, this cannot be done by having “flacks and hucksters” talk at the marketplace, but by having everyone, from the lowliest clerk to the mightiest executive, talk with the marketplace — via Twitter, Facebook, smartphone, blogs, wikis, and whatever new forms of interaction may come along in the next few years — via an integrated IT strategy.
In any case, the bottom line is that some CIO’s would be happy to talk to you, and are delighted that their employees are “talking” via mechanisms like blogs (last time I checked, companies like IBM and Microsoft had thousands of “external” blogs authored by their employees). And some CIO’s are doing their hide themselves and their company’s IT strategy from anyone and everyone. You may agree or disagree with such a strategy, but it may not have occurred to you just how differently these companies may be operating.
Regardless of whether you favor an “open” or “closed” approach, vis-a-vis the CIO and his or her IT strategy, I think it’s a good idea to write down a list of “key” organizations — e.g., companies you like, dislike, depend on, or are otherwise impressed by — and see whether their strategy is compatible with your own. You may well be surprised by what you find, and it may encourage you to seek a closer relationship … or to do your best to minimize your interactions with, and dependence on, such companies.