A Funny Thing Happened on our way to the Cloud…

It was a day of thunderstorms and epiphanies.

The conference: BoxDEV in San Francisco: plenty of news about their solid platform, an energetic community of developers, and, of course, that jazzy CEO with his fine sense of humor. My “Aha” at the conference, however, was not about the company’s gutsy path toward an IPO in this Strange Days economy, nor the new technologies unveiled throughout the day. It was my discovery of a New Symptom, further evidence of the transformation of the Enterprise. Observing that new symptom led, in turn, to an epiphany about the changing role of the CIO in our journey toward Enterprise 2.0.

First, as a frame for this epiphany, allow me this brief back-story.

I’ve been reporting on the role of the CIO since 2000-2001. As the CIO for Jamcracker, I interviewed dozens of IT executives and academics across the United States and, from that research, published a white paper about the future of “the New CIO” – less absorbed by internal operations and more engaged with customers and partners, and a variety of system architectures “outside the firewall.” This was a different time, before the advent of social media (though the folks at a company called Flypaper had some really interesting ideas, and a company called LinkedIn was beginning to make noise in Berkeley). It was the early stages of “hosted systems,” Tom Siebel’s company challenged by the “new” multi-tenant architecture of Salesforce.com.

An all-too-frequent topic of industry media at the time was the struggle for the CIO “to get a seat at the table” with so many of my colleagues lamenting their still-secondary role inside of their companies, along with a relentless wave of industry research exclaiming that hosted systems would surely lead to “the Death of IT.” (Forrester, 2000.) And yet, over the decade to follow, IT did not die and the CIOs of the Enterprise were not eliminated. Rather, those CIOs and the technology organizations they managed, have continued to adapt (to the technologies and new business models that have emerged), though it is true, they are no longer the internal plumbers of that bygone era. Pulled into a future of external systems-as-a-service and the disruption caused by a) subscriptions in lieu of outright purchase, and b) the surge of devices, data, and demand for fully-integrated Systems of Engagement, the role of the CIO and the organization she directs is a very different one.

How different? That’s what my BoxDEV afternoon led me to recognize.

The agenda at BoxDEV included three panels (one composed of Venture Capitalists, one of notable CIOs, and a third composed of Startup CEOs as panelists). With apologies for the absence of names (except for a remarkable few), I’ve chose to emphasize anonymity because my observations are less about personality or presence and more about their perspective on the state of our industry. 

My initial impression of the CIO panelists?

Confession: Having held that role, I suffer from lofty and perhaps unrealistic expectations for my peers: frankly, I was somewhat disappointed with the conversation. With the exception of one panelist (Rebecca Jacoby, CIO, Intel – who was remarkably astute and articulate about the complex challenges of Enterprise IT ), my initial impression was that the IT executives on stage struggled to find an adequate vocabulary for the very technical audience, relying upon Old World phrases (like my grandparents who spoke Yiddish not for clarity but because they never learned English): “strategic alignment with the business,” “burdened by legacy systems,” “empowering teams…” to describe their current environments changes (epitomized by but not exclusively the result of social media, mobility, and the omnipresent Cloud). 

My initial impression of the StartUp CEOs was quite the opposite.

Each CEO panelist had a different perspective (on employee engagement, culture, and managing both success as well as failure), and each had their own vocabulary as if there were distinct dialects spoken by various tribes within a common neighborhood. For example, one panelist summarily dismissed the need for explicit publication of cultural values, while another candidly praised the value of seeing his company’s “core values” on the wall.

What was more impressive, (though they came from different backgrounds and histories, and while their companies were dissimilar in many ways (business models, functions/features, markets) – these CEOs seemed much more attuned to the shifting sands of the Enterprise client, much closer to the pulse of current team challenges, and far less dependent upon jargon as they described the New World.  In the water with their Enterprise customers, swimming with them, shivering with them – as such, they can offer much more compelling descriptions of the State of IT. In short, these startup executives knew and understood their Enterprise customers better than the IT leadership seemed to know their own employees.

It was a new symptom, this dislocation of familiarity – outsiders with a more intimate understanding of IT organizations than the internal leadership of those organizations. I didn’t know what to make of this oddity, and as I will occasionally do when I’m thinking through a new problem, I asked a few people for their thoughts on the matter, colleagues with careers that I admire and opinions that I respect. Here’s what they advised.

Geoffrey: It is essentially an issue of layers – Process vs. Program, and the disturbance cause when one is confused with the other. CIOs, in his opinion, attend to the orchestration of business and technology issues at the Process level; what I may have observed, he suggested, was that the Startup CEOs were familiar with the Program level – pertinent to their product or service but not necessarily a reflection of a broader comprehension of the entire business that comprises the enterprise.

John: It’s been going on for a long time and it will continue to unfold for years to come; John was less inclined to draw certain conclusions about this point in time, nor convinced that the cycle is about to be complete – he suggested that it was a multi-generational (evolutionary) change and that we are only in the midst of that much longer cycle – as such, we should be cautious about over-simplifications and conclusions.

Hypothesis: Each little-service-provider-connected-to-one-small-team within a large corporation (Startup panelists) are closer, in many ways, to the inner workings and daily ebb/flow of work within the larger enterprise, and this proximity allows for more accuracy today’s State.

Corollary: The Enterprise CIO (now a business executive viewing the world around them, not from the trenches, but from their truly executive position) is re-focused upon macro-level directions, risk mitigation strategies, stateless orchestration – and has delegated her technical role to those on her team who are “closer” to the technology. In other words, she has arrived

The transformation (Systems of Record -> Systems of Engagement), the commercialization and consequent mobility of any-device-any-application, and the architectural redeployment of infrastructure from owned (on prem) to rented (AWS, Google Drive, etc.) now allows for many more service providers (HP is tracking 1000 apps currently in use within the company) in an extended ecosystem (per my notion that Enterprise 2.0 needs Governance 2.0). One symptom of this shift (one which I’ve not yet seen in previous transformations): as CIOs attend to higher level business processes and strategies for their respective companies, the ecosystem of trusted partners (specialized, project/program-oriented) potentially assumes a more vital role in IT governance

When asked to take the pulse of her own organization, she now turns to her staff for the answer and those delegates (her senior staff) are the interface with the company’s broad ecosystem of partners.  These “little-service-providers” connect directly into critical business processes via the API of senior management, whereas the CIO works for orchestration, etc.  As such, each ecosystem participant (like embedded journalists during the Iraq invasion) actually knows current events better than the generals in Washington. This is not a criticism of generals – only recognition that their success as leaders must be augmented by a vital and more resilient matrix of subject matter experts. In the world of Enterprise 2.0, those experts reside both inside and outside of the organization.

A funny thing happened on our way to the Cloud. CIOs have arrived “at the Table.”



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