I've long been an advocate of IT leaders who are focused on solving business problems, using technology as a tool to aid in solving these problems. While this remains true, it is incumbent on the CIO to stay abreast of technological developments, and there are few better resources than your own staff.
Many IT leaders often look to vendors to fill this critical role, and there are two problems with this approach. The first is fairly obvious: enterprise vendors are beholden to the technologies they represent. Even reasonably "independent" implementation providers usually have a cadre of preferred vendors or, if nothing else, a lack of deep knowledge of your company and its processes. Secondly, much of the technical innovation these days is happening outside the walls of the enterprise. From innovations in consumer electronics, to innovative software coming from small technology startups, the "magic" is likely not happening within the walls of the usual enterprise suspects.
Aside from a great staff development opportunity, spending some time with your younger staff members and those who are most interested in technology will keep you abreast of new developments in the field. While larger companies can't jump on every technological bandwagon that passes by the front door, having a working understanding of trends and emerging tools will allow you to explore these options when applicable, and further your status as a trusted advisor who can combine business strategy with current technical tools.
It should be relatively easy to identify the people to whom you should be talking. Look for the well-respected "wiz" developer to whom peers come with their toughest coding questions. This person may frustrate his or her management, as they're always trying to employ "unapproved" new tools or constantly berating corporate standards and tools as passé. Similar consumer electronics gurus likely exist around your company, both within and outside IT. The tablet-toting VP of marketing who's constantly pushing the envelope on corporate technology policy could be both a source of information on new technology and a valuable ally to IT, once he or she feels their views are being heard and acted upon.
I try to "talk tech" with colleagues at least a few times each year, and I learn something new every time. It's been over a decade since I've written a line of code in a professional capacity, but during my most recent technology conversation I was excited to learn that many of the promises of the "future of development" are now not only commonplace, but pushed to new limits. I even spent a half day playing with Node.js, not in some misguided hope that I'd become a professional developer in a matter of hours, but to understand the capabilities of a tool that could help clients or, if nothing else, represents one more step in the evolution of technical tools.
It may seem like you're doing your "due diligence" on emerging technologies by getting your information on emerging technologies from vendors (especially when much of it comes over a fine meal), but some of your best sources for this information may be just down the hall from your office.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.