A delegation of American CIOs visited Israel for six days last month and were treated as if they were heads of state, industrial chieftains or Hollywood stars. Like presidents and CEOs on official visits, the CIOs made the obligatory visits to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, and Sderot, the border town under daily bombardment by Hamas.
But the trip focused mainly on Israel's Western-oriented, business-minded society. Within hours of arriving, the jet-lagged CIOs dined with Israel's most successful high-tech entrepreneur, Yossi Vardi, who funded Mirabilis, the firm that pioneered Internet chat. In the following days, the Americans met Israelis of all stripes: ordinary citizens, young soldiers and their parents, former military commanders, high-tech business leaders and entrepreneurs, top computer researchers and academics, and government officials, including members of Israel's parliament. They even had a 20-minute audience with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Why were the CIOs given the royal treatment? Israelis view American CIOs as influential business leaders and prominent members of their communities, and they wanted the executives to understand that the Jewish state is more than a host of holy sites and a place of violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It's a leading center of global business and high-tech development.
Did the CIOs get a balanced perspective of Israel? Well, they didn't hear from Arab Israelis or Palestinians, which prompted this response from a reader from Jordan to my blog about the tour: "The whole trip is pro-Israel propaganda." That complaint has some validity; the tour was sponsored by the pro-Israel but nongovernmental America-Israel Friendship League, with a goal of building ties between the two nations.
But these CIOs are smart enough to distinguish propaganda from reality. And they discovered that Israel and the United States have far more in common than they realized before their visit--especially in the areas of IT and business. "They have some of the same issues we have back in the United States," observed Denise Moore, chief information technology officer for the state of Kansas.
One thing that impressed the CIOs was the fundamental computer research being conducted at Technion, Israel's MIT. Matt Hall, assistant vice chancellor for IT services at Vanderbilt University, imagines future collaboration between Technion and his school. "Can we find a way, through information technology, to connect researchers so they can produce better things through their collective intellects?" he asks.
Stephen Levin, CIO for administrative services at the University of Minnesota, echoed that sentiment: "There is a lot of food for thought on how to bring the two worlds together."