Your CIO is Having an Identity Crisis

Attention members of the C-suite: your CIO is having an identity crisis … and it’s your fault. That’s what you’d hear if you could be a bug on the wall at a CIO convention: “What do they want me to do? Oil the machines? Contribute to strategy? Take charge of business processes? Save money? Please the customer? Lead innovation? And may I please have a seat at the table.”

Although indecision over roles in the organization can be blamed, this is ultimately the result of the global information age economy in which knowledge determines the winner. Who in your company is responsible for the information? Is it the CIO because his or her title has the word “information” in it?

The latest manifestation of this identity crisis is what the pundits have labeled “CIO 2.0″―as though version 1.0 had been nailed. The truth is, CIO 2.0 can mean anything and everything. On one end of the spectrum, it can refer to a super hero rescuing the organization from certain death. On the other, it can mean master of the latest generation of technology tools known as Web 2.0. As amorphous a concept as CIO 2.0, it refers to new Web-based applications, blogs, Wikis, social networks and the like that make it easy for people to create and share information. And now, it is said, the enterprise should embrace these. This too has a name: Enterprise 2.0.

Let’s step back from all this buzzword fun and ask some fundamental questions: what do we really need to know to survive and thrive in this economy? The computers you have spent so much money on typically provide data on what’s happening within your four walls, and that began a half century ago with accounting data. Today, however, really critical things are happening outside your walls. That’s where the opportunities and threats are. Given the connectedness of our world, those opportunities and threats might pop up anywhere on the globe. They might come out of left field as something you had never thought about, much less factored into your decision making. And they might be game-changing, for good or ill. To deal with them you need information, but not the old kind.

The father of modern management, Peter Drucker, wrote: “For strategy, we need organized information about the environment. Strategy has to be based on information about markets, customers and non-customers; about technology in one’s own industry and others; about worldwide finance and about the changing world economy. For that is where the results are. Inside an organization, there are only cost centers. The only profit center is a customer whose check has not bounced.”

Are you getting this information? Where? Newspapers? Conventions? Staff meetings?

Here’s a way to think about Web 2.0. Your younger people are probably already using these tools, and they’re going to bring them inside your walls-just as 20 years ago they began to bring their own PCs inside. This new generation is probably as plugged into, and as loyal to, their professional peers in other organizations as they are to you. So, they know things you don’t. They know who out there is hiring, for example. They make it their business to know what’s happening on the outside.

Are you giving them incentives to use this information for the organization’s good? Are your IT systems and technical people making this happen or do you feel threatened by it? Are you blocking it with a “not invented here” mindset? As for outside information, ask: What do I need to know? Who knows it? Where are they? How can I connect with them? How can I create a steady, real-time stream of external knowledge? Very likely you can use technology for this, tapping into networks of knowledge. It can come from your partners, your customers, universities, anywhere.

Who will take the lead on this? Your chief “information” officer? He or she will understand it, but this will require collaborative leadership from the entire C-suite, because it has implications for every corner of the organization.

As to the identity crisis, it is true not just for individuals today but for entire organizations and industries. The key to understanding it and acting is to realize that it is, at its root, an information crisis. The real problem with the CIO is that you have been focused on technology and not on information.

A former senior executive at GE and other multi-nationals, Faisal Hoque is an internationally known entrepreneur and thought leader and the founder of of BTM Corp. Faisal has written five management books, established a non-profit institute, The BTM Institute, and become a leading authority on the issue of effective interaction between business and technology. He is the author of forthcoming book, The Convergence Scorecard (2009), to be published by the Harvard Business Press.