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How do CIOs keep up with technology?

Keeping up with changing technologies means CIOs have to go through a mountain of information, and then decide which of it — if any — is useful to their company. ZDNet.com.au delves into how they do it.
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Written by Suzanne Tindal on

Keeping up with changing technologies means CIOs have to go through a mountain of information, and then decide which of it — if any — is useful to their company. ZDNet.com.au delves into how they do it.

Sourcing — the information has to come from somewhere
According to CIOs and consultants, there are a variety of information sources out there, including CIO councils, analysts, vendors, conferences, exhibitions and media/Internet — but who should you listen to?

The Internet's not good for real information.

George Lymbers, CIO Anglican Church, Sydney Diocese

CIO councils are a popular choice among a number of CIOs: George Lymbers, CIO of the Anglican Church, Sydney diocese, named them as one of his preferred sources. Australian Computer Society (ACS) President Kumar Parakala echoed Lymbers sentiments, saying they play an important role because CIOs do a very individual job that only other CIOs can really understand.

"CIOs are very lonely people," he added.

If CIOs are happy to listen to their peers, they're slightly more sceptical when it comes to listening to the companies whose products they buy.

Vendors receive mixed reviews, unsurprisingly, for their habit of putting their own spin on the information. Speaking at the IDC Directions 08 conference recently, Jim Barclay, CIO of Logan City Council, gave vendors the thumbs down: "The one I'd read the least would be the vendor's brochures," he said.

The ACS's Parakala was more equivocal in his view of suppliers. "There are companies out there that understand the industry needs and industry," he said, but cautioned that when vendors present their information, CIOs can "get all the gloss" and "miss the reality".

The Church's Lymbers and Steve Godbee, IBM CIO ANZ, both said they speak to analysts such as Gartner or IDC to get the low-down on technology, but Accenture's strategic IT effectiveness team leader Grant Barker said that analysts can be "unencumbered by reality to a certain extent".

He added that while analysts are useful for "thinking even further out of the box", suppliers such as Accenture or IBM can be more useful because they always have "how do you make it happen?" in the back of their minds.

While it's not surprising that CIOs will turn to the old favourites, the Internet and the media to research technology, the wealth of information on the Web is not without its pitfalls. According to Peter Ryan, consulting partner at Deloitte, the media and the Web need to be looked at with a critical eye, while Church CIO Lymbers doesn't think of the Internet as a genuinely useful source of information: "The Internet's not good for real information. You can get snippets of information and you can think that's interesting... To get real information you need to go to conferences."

According to the ACS's Parakala, one of the best sources for getting information on technology is...

... going to see it in action. "The best credential that anything is going well is going and seeing it," he said.

However, no source should be taken at face value for CIOs, with some tech execs suggesting more effort should go into researching the sources of CIO information than the actual information itself. "You've got to be 100 percent sure you're getting advice from the correct place," Parakala said, adding that independence of any advice is crucial.

Can somebody help me?
CIOs can't possibly go to every conference on offer — giving the CIO's team a chance to come into its own, by helping gather information.

Staff can be helpful in filtering information, picking out the interesting tidbits, Peter Nevin, former CIO of engineering consultants Sinclair Knight Merz noted at the IDC Directions 08 event recently. "By 12:00 I've been told 10 new technologies," he said.

However, staff being used as an information hoover need guidance, according to Deloitte's Ryan, who says sending them out to big conferences without telling them specifically what they are to look for means "all they do is come back with sore heads". He suggests flagging three things for direct reports to look for at conferences.

Accenture's Barker says that CIOs will be able to delegate going to conferences only if they have chosen their employees for the way they can see the connection between technology and business. "Anyone can attend a conference but it's the ability to synthesise, to say I know how this affects business," he said.

Once the pieces are there, the jigsaw begins
When the information has been gathered, what do CIOs do with it? Sinclair Knight Merz's Nevin tries to see directions in the torrent.

"It's almost a bit of...

... fashion statement," he said, adding that if a CIO can pick what will be around for a few years, they are in a good place.

CIOs need to know where they fit on the adopter scale, according to Deloitte's Ryan, so they don't introduce technology too early: normally banks and telcos will adopt first he said, with government adopting much later, for example.

Before you know it, business has had long discussions with vendors and signed agreements — and IT has to run it.

Grant Barker, Accenture Strategic IT Effectiveness (SITE) Team lead

And what about the business?
Ryan said that when CIOs know what technologies need to be introduced into their organisation, they need to flag them years ahead with the board in order to prepare them and have money set aside for implementation. Otherwise, when the time comes to invest in the technology, the CIO is faced with "blank stares" and will have to work 24/7 to get projects going.

Every company's IT budget needs to have funds set aside for finding and testing new technologies, Accenture's Barker said — or risk losing control of decision making.

If IT stops introducing new tech, business will take the reins and find the technology it needs on its own, he said: "Before you know it, business has had long discussions with vendors and signed agreements — and IT has to run it."

He stresses that although business has to tell IT what its needs are so the department can fulfil them, IT still has to be the department that identifies the specific technologies, when they should be introduced, and where they should be bought.


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