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Why CIOs don't grasp differentiation

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 12-10-2009 Print

Why do you think so many CIOs don't grasp the potential for differentiation? Is it because they're too techie?

Fried:There are a bunch of things CIOs struggle with. A lot of it is tied to demographics. When a lot of us entered the work force, the expectation was that the best technology would come from your employer. I was never going to get a computing environment at home that was better than what I got at work--you couldn't afford it, there were no networks, there were no routers, etc. It's hard to imagine those dark ages, but a lot of people grew up in that era with the expectation that there was a tremendous expertise in corporate IT that determined what the best technology choices were for a company, and they gave them to the people in the company.

With access to the Internet, there was an inversion. People coming into the work force now typically have better home technology than what they get at work. They're not tied to refresh cycles, they have bigger monitors, they have a faster Internet connection. I remember when all Morgan Stanley ran off of two 1.5-megabit T-1 line connections to the Internet, and now RCN gives me a 20-megabit connection to the Internet at home. So the inversion we've discovered is that the younger generation has already made their technology choices, and they're frequently able to acquire better technology than their company gives them. That makes this very, very hard.

So are you saying CIOs should embrace what their users want?

Fried:It's hard to accept the fact that people want to work differently from the way we've told them they had to. When I spent my full time developing software, we used to joke that you chose the text editor you used to write programs based on a religious opinion you had. It's hard for CIOs to accept that people feel strongly, passionately and personally about the technology tools they use to work. It's almost insulting to people when they hear, "We know better than you how it's best for you to work." It's tough for people who came from a generation where they weren't empowered and technically capable of making choices.

There was this example at Morgan Stanley where a summer intern looked at the technology the company gave him and came back the next day with his own PC. He had more memory, a faster processor and a different software set than the company had given him. He didn't even connect to the corporate network; he just bought a WAN card. And he was the highest ranked intern in his class. My bet was that some of these fast movers will sit on a rocket to the C-suite. Some of the people from that generation are going to be the CIO's bosses. And they'll say, "What do you do? I've never used any of your services or respected any of them."

Speaking more directly about differentiation ...writing software is hard. It has elements of art, science and engineering. Building infrastructure is largely determined for you--if you have good people and good vendors and experience, you can accurately predict when you're going to build architecture or a data center.

When you talk about differentiation, custom software that does something that's unique to your company is one of those things that adds differentiation, something that people talk about. There's where CIOs should focus--it's where you can most interestingly differentiate your company.

It's easier to be distracted by the idea that we can make a whole set of technology decisions for the work force, when the reality is that we're probably best off making decisions about what makes our company really different.

You talk about productivity. It's a top concern for CIOs right now. Why not give these younger people the tools they want?

Fried:The reality is that you build up an entire ecosystem around this set of decisions. I know a lot of organizations that try to take internal help-desk customer support and try to outsource it and turn it into pay-per-ticket or something like that. A common approach to driving costs out of customer support is rigid standardization--the thinking there is, we're choosing only one tool for each job and, in so doing, we'll make the support very easy and low cost.

People have all kinds of great metrics for measuring this. But those CIOs end up getting painted into a corner. They take a standardization approach, which is "all or nothing" for the organization and do things all one way; it may be a Socratic extreme, but it describes the philosophy by saying, "By not doing, we'll knock costs out of the system."

We try to give people some measure of choice that we can support and build an ecosystem around. We support Macintosh and two versions of Windows and Linux on the desktop. We obviously like and prefer when people use Google Apps, but we also have Microsoft Office, OpenOffice and iWork in the environment. So there's a lot of choice, and we've made an investment to do this.

When you create an environment where support is interesting, you get support people who are attracted to it. We're able to hire people who maybe used Macs at school but now want to learn Windows. You get people who have an inherent interest in the technology and in the work.

Like anything else, finding good people isn't easy, but it's not markedly harder to find these sorts of people. When you have them, you don't have to worry about canning every response to every problem. You definitely have to build up knowledge bases; but here, the person you present your problem to is the person who solves your problem.

That's very different from my experiences at other companies. A lot of other companies try to optimize as much out of it as possible, and they'll deal with cookbook responses and escalate as few as possible. That's a very different model.

Users know when they are talking with someone who clearly doesn't understand the problem and is reading off a worksheet they've been given--and they don't like it. Having a diverse technology environment allows you to get better support people. Having better support people allows you to close out more problems on the front lines than you would be able to otherwise. That turns out to be a material cost benefit.

Secondarily, it makes technology change management much easier. Then you have support people that think on their feet and react to changes and probably get there without having to do a large amount of planning. We've had a few cases like that this year.

In one case (where we discontinued a product that thousands of people used every day), I would have expected that, as a result of that change, there would have been people in colored shirts saying, "I'm the person to teach you how to change your work habits from using this technology to that technology."

But I got no escalations when we shut it down. To a large degree, that was because the support people knew how to handle these potential problems.


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