The Renaissance Technologist

The Renaissance Technologist

Renaissance CIOs have a balanced view of technology. They have a deep understanding of the real power of IT as well as a healthy respect for the risks associated with force-feeding IT to a reluctant organization traumatized by previous overpromises and underdelivery of IT benefits. The puzzles that intrigue and engage Renaissance CIOs involve designing IT into the business for strategic benefits, working effectively with senior management to make the organizational changes needed to get people to use that technology, and identifying organizational idiosyncrasies and qualified personnel who can smooth out those rough edges.

Renaissance CIOs approach technology from the perspective of architecture—or more accurately, from the perspective of city planning. With bewildering speed, IT design has changed from mainframes to micros to networks. Digitization is revolutionizing everything: telecommunications, music, video. But Renaissance CIOs know they must rise above the details of these tasks to bring order to them. The goal of extracting information of value to the business cannot be accomplished while buried in the details, and thus the concentration on architecture. Working with concepts like form and function, the Renaissance CIO uses high-level schematic diagrams to define broad relationships among key technology components, then burrows down to detailed plans and drawings, and then to lower-level lists of the hardware and software needed.

Often, the first real test faced by Renaissance CIOs is what to do about legacy systems. Developed over time and integrated deep into the innards of how companies operate, legacy systems represent huge sunk investments. Worse, legacy systems encourage legacy thinking—the idea that the organization's capabilities will always be limited by its current systems, making innovative strategies impossible to support. An organization whose legacy system won't support different product prices in California and Pennsylvania is less likely to study whether different pricing policies would increase revenue—and thus may be missing out on major improvements in strategy, the benefits from which might easily pay for a systems upgrade 10 times over. Unfortunately, the risk of successfully mounting a project to replace a legacy system is laced with so much organizational change that the probability of success is poor.

Most CIOs linger over the legacy issue, but Renaissance CIOs force the decision, manage through it and move on. Solvik's first item of business when he became Cisco's CIO was to address the legacy systems problem. Within nine months, Solvik and the Cisco management team had done away with the company's legacy systems entirely, replacing them with Internet-ready technology.

As part of their architectural planning, Renaissance CIOs see the Internet for what it is: a revolutionary collection of technologies that will drive the economy to the next level by unlocking the potential value in organizations, customer networks and the knowledge base of Internet users outside the firm. Like television in 1957, the Internet is on the verge of transforming from a technology to a medium, and that means the Renaissance CIO will be responsible for how their firms will play in this arena.

The Internet has changed every company's computer environment from a finite number of owned and controlled computers to millions of interconnected computers, a system that changes continually as new features are developed and made available through the Web. Thus, the idea of a single operating system controlled by a particular company has become obsolete. Instead, the operating system is evolving into an open-standards environment in which the best components offered by any number of companies—for security, encryption, objects, data, video and the like—win out.

No longer can CIOs look to one vendor to supply them with the operating system and to integrate every new feature onto their platforms. The result: Renaissance CIOs keep their eyes open for major new trends—the potential for wireless appliances to supplant PCs as the dominant method for getting on the Internet, for instance—and embrace the challenge of increasing complexity.

To that end, some companies are separating their IT operations from their IT strategy. At Procter & Gamble, IT operations have been separated from the CIO, who concentrates on strategy. Steve David, the company's CIO, has the additional title of business-to-business officer, while Mike Power, operational head of the IT network, is vice president of global business services. The logic is compelling: Separate IT and run it as a utility that provides services for the rest of the company, and give the CIO responsibility to plan strategy for IT use in the context of corporate strategy.

This article was originally published on 02-04-2002
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