Buzz vs. Business Benefits

It’s rare that you get to see a CIO bring the house down.

But that’s exactly what happened this spring, when I moderated a panel on cloud computing. Along with a CIO, representatives from three vendors discussed what the cloud is, what it could be and what it should mean for enterprises.

Not to knock the vendor executives–these three are particularly sharp–but at three to one, you can imagine the tilt of the panel.

A large audience heard them praise the cloud and all its positive attributes. But just as the session concluded, the CIO chimed in. “We’ve all heard how great the technology allegedly is,” he said, in so many words, “but what’s in it for me? Why should I use it?”

Much of the crowd applauded. Some yelled, “Amen!” Had the audience been packed with more CIOs, I’m sure that reaction would have been even more emphatic.

Since then, I’ve heard countless IT leaders talk about the cloud, and almost all of them echo that CIO: “Is the cloud an internal thing or an external thing? How much will it really help me save? And just how ‘new’ is this idea?”

Few technological advances are as hyped these days as the cloud. To be fair, cloud computing holds enormous potential–and plenty of IT executives at small and medium-size businesses have already reaped the benefits.

But what about bigger companies? Tony Kontzer, who’s been covering the cloud phenomenon for years with a healthy (and totally appropriate) dose of skepticism, analyzes the cloud’s forecast in major enterprises in his feature, “The Cloud’s Sky-High Hype”.

In his reporting, Kontzer spoke with some of the best CIOs in the business, and all of them drew similar conclusions. They see the benefits, but they’re also a bit skeptical about the reality of cloud computing.

And for good reason. Hype can be a powerful influence, so it needs to be countered with objectivity–and skepticism.

Andrew McAfee, a professor and research scientist at MIT, spoke with me recently about “Enterprise 2.0”–his vision of what Web 2.0 and collaborative technologies can bring to businesses. In my interview with him, he says we shouldn’t expect technology vendors to temper the buzz. “The buzz is what they’re all about,” he tells me.

Truer words have never been spoken. While there’s plenty of buzz around Web 2.0 tools–witness the never-ending headlines about Facebook, Twitter and others, despite the lack of clear business models–McAfee believes they can deliver enormous gains.

We’ve been covering social media in the enterprise for quite a while, and there’s a lot there. But a big part of CIOs’ concerns relates to those of cloud computing. Is it an internal thing or an external thing? Or both? And what’s the real business benefit?

McAfee offers answers in these pages, and in his new book, Enterprise 2.0. It’s an eye-opening read, as is Peter High’s World Class IT. In it, the consultant lays out what it takes to build a truly world-class IT organization. CIOs can learn some important lessons from High and the top-notch CIOs he profiles in the book.

All of these issues–the cloud, Web 2.0 in the enterprise and building an always-improving IT shop–will surely be on the CIO’s mind in 2010. But with all of these possibilities comes the need for skepticism.

While vendors may offer “innovation” in a box or via the Web, the true power of transformative technologies lies in the way they’re implemented by forward-thinking, business-minded IT leaders.

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