I'm still musing over an eye-opening experience a few months ago when I spoke at CIO Magazine's annual conference. You might have expected, as I had, that most Chief Information Officers wanted to know about the latest trends in technology so they could keep ahead of the curve. Nothing of the sort. CIOs, it turns out, are mostly business people who have been given the thankless job of keeping the lights on, IT wise. And the best way to ensure that they stay on is to change as little as possible.
That puts many CIOs in the position of not being the technology innovator in their company, but rather the dead weight keeping the real technology innovators--employees who want to use the tools increasingly available on the wide-open Web to help them do their jobs better--from taking matters into their own hands.
In fairness, the CIOs have a pretty tough job. Nobody thanks them when the network works and the data is backed up, but they get fired when things go wrong. No surprise that they're so risk-adverse and conservative. The pesky users keep trying to, you know, do new things. This causes unpredictable outcomes. Which must be avoided.
The consequence of this is that many CIOs are now just one step above Building Maintenance. They have the unpleasant job of mopping up data spills when they happen, along with enforcing draconian data retention policies sent down from the legal department. They respond to trouble tickets and disable user permissions. They practice saying "No", not "What if..." And they block the ports used by the most popular services, from Skype to Second Life, which always reminds me of the old joke about the English shopkeeper who, when asked what happened to a certain product, answered "We don't stock it anymore. It kept selling out."
The most dramatic example of this is on college campuses, where a generation raised on Google and MySpace meets its first IT department. Needless to say, the kids want nothing to do with "disk storage allocations" and "acceptable use policies". The life of a university CIO is like the life of a telco CEO, fast forwarded by about five years. The users want a dumb pipe, preferably at gigabit speed. They neither need or want the university to administer their email, wikis, blogs, video storage or discussion groups. They want it to simply get out of their way.
No wonder that the prevailing discussion among the university CIOs was about "relevance". Users no longer value what they do. It doesn't require a "C" title to keep fat pipes to the wide-open Internet open. A zillion free hosted services on the web have replaced the functionality of the IT departments service by service, just as minerals replace the cells in dinosaur bones. Talk of extinction was in the air, and rightly so.
Here's a quote from CIO magazine's own coverage of the event:
CIOs don't seem to care all that much about the needs and desires of the next wave of workers, who come from Gen Y and are also referred to as Millenials. The gestalt of the Millenials (a.k.a., the "I'm special" generation) is that they grew up with a boundless sense of self-importance, always have had the Internet, love to share digital content, need to be constantly challenged, want high-level responsibilities immediately, expect a work-life balance with telecommuting options, and will go around IT practices and policies without hesitation. The old-school CIOs I spoke with seemed both annoyed with their audacity and mildly interested in what this new wave of employees could deliver in the IT department.
Emphasis on "mildly".