Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Enterprise Startups: Risk vs. Reward

In tech, playing it safe is a sure way to get fired

Sure, in the old days nobody ever got fired for sticking with big vendors, but times have changed.

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Image: Shutterstock

"Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM" was the old saying. Over the years the name of the vendor occasionally changed depending on the circumstance, but the implication remained the same: stick with the biggest vendors, play it safe and the boss can't use it against you should things go wrong.

For an apparently forward-looking sector, it's a pretty conservative vision -- one that places the emphasis on avoiding risk (and saving one's own skin) rather than betting on the outsiders that might pay off big-time for the business.

However, it's a concept that no longer applies particularly well in many businesses, which is probably a good thing.

Few companies are particularly interested in having a CIO whose first priority is self-preservation and who presides over a standard tech infrastructure: if a commodity service is what the company needs, it's often much easier to outsource it instead.

At the same time, other business executives are keen to take greater control of digital innovation, so CIOs must demonstrate that they can set the agenda for the business rather than just follow and support.

That means taking risks on new ways of delivering services, and seeking out new relationships -- with startups, for example. Of course that's easy to say but harder to do, especially as the demands on the CIO increase: no chief executive is going to listen to an innovative idea from a CIO who can't keep the email service running.

Analyst Gartner estimates that the average CIO is spending an extra day per month, running the IT department than they were four years ago, which eats into the time they have for planning.

One answer is to hire a good deputy: Gartner found that CIOs with higher performance as IT leaders had a deputy responsible for running the whole IT shop day to day. Once they've got the time to think, tech chiefs need to shift their focus -- from where the business was to where it will be. "Digital has moved to centre stage, so is the opportunity for CIOs to flip their digital leadership from 'legacy first' to 'digital first'," the analyst firm said.

The evolving CIO role

A recent poll of the ZDNet/TechRepublic CIO Jury showed that CIOs remain keen to take responsibility for tech innovation and think they are still the best-placed executive to do the job.

And when asked whether CIOs should take more risks -- for example on new technologies and on startups as suppliers -- the responses from CIO Jury members reflect how the role of the CIO has changed.

"Businesses are looking for more commercially astute CIOs prepared to consciously take calculated risks to give their organisations a competitive edge. Playing it safe is a sure-fire way to getting yourself fired, or successfully pedestrianizing the progress of your business," said Gavin Megnauth, group CIO at Impellam. He added: "We are in a massively disruptive era, with a vast array of new technology startups who have significant financial backing and who lack the legacy of some of the long-term established players."

According to Michael Hanken, VP of IT for Multiquip, "IT has to be more flexible to cope with rapidly changing demands." The technology organisation also needs to be "rock solid with the ability for fluidity," said Hanken.

But Richard Frisch, CTO at Global Strategy Group, cautioned that while tech chiefs need to evaluate new technologies, legacy will continue to dominate in many areas, for many reasons: "As for suppliers, I am somewhat wary of startups. They may not last long due to lack of market acceptance, changing focus, or acquisition/acqui-hire by a larger company, or something else."

John Gracyalny, VP IT at SafeAmerica Credit Union, offered a concrete example in the shape of working with other executives on ambitious projects: "It was our CEO who had to make the final risk versus reward decision, and I'm very happy that he is relatively young and progressive, and agreed with my recommendation to swing for the fences."

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