More CIO distractions and how to deal with them

The best technologies enable and accelerate good processes and organizational dynamics rather than replace them. Cultivating this view will move you from distracted technologist to rational and trusted advisor.

Based on the response to my last list of "CIO Distractions," here are several more. These are the "sparkling shiny things" that cause CIOs to take their eyes off more critical tasks, as well as disruptive technologies that fire the imagination of non-IT executives and cause them to run into your office, breathlessly demanding the technology du jour be adopted yesterday.

Vendor "solutions"

On some dark day decades ago, someone convinced IT vendors that the key to increased sales was "solution selling." Now, every new product, be it a mundane grey box for the data center or a piece of insignificant software, has become a "solution." While there are certainly products that are valid solutions to a particular problem-a fire extinguisher, for example-many of these tech-centric "solutions" are targeted at organizational or behavioral problems. A Customer Relationship Management (CRM) application will never make poor salespeople suddenly magnificent, nor will the latest Unified Communication or Social Collaboration "solution" make parochial employees suddenly master collaborators.

When you find yourself considering a "solution," ask if there's a deeper business, process, or organizational problem at the root. It may be organizationally more painful to attack the root problem, but you'll experience a long-term fix rather than applying an expensive technological band-aid that's unlikely to actually solve the problem at hand.

Research organizations

Every other week, one of the oracles of IT makes some pronouncement, usually accompanied by a Magic Quadrant or fancy graph. While these organizations are great for bringing attention to emerging technologies, their predictions are guesses at best and vendor-funded advertisements at worst. We've seen predictions ranging from all the major ERP vendors folding due to "eCommerce," to the end of the traditional physical retail store. These "studies" often accompany a pitch for a vendor "solution" that will put your company in the "best looking" and "most handsome" corner of the magical parallelogram.

These organizations are paid to make bold predictions as they sell research reports and garner headlines, but they're rarely held to account when they completely misread a trend. Avoid changing your IT strategy or embarking on implementation of an untried technology merely because the research organizations love it, and temper the enthusiasm of your colleagues with some realism about the track record of many of these forecasts.

Big data

We've all heard about "big data," the idea that massive troves of data garners from disparate systems, when carefully curated and analyzed, will produce better decisions and distinct competitive advantage. While "big data" is a new term, the concepts have existed since the dawn of IT: capture all manner of information, and you'll produce bigger, better, and faster decisions. This idea has justified years of "data hoarding" in the form of data warehouses, and big data proponents have rekindled an interest in analyzing and leveraging that data.

Like all mainstream trends, there's a large amount of truth to the big data hype. If you can effectively gather the right data, analyze it appropriately, and get it to the right people in the right format, you have certainly generated a competitive advantage. The two major distractions I see with "big data" are the idea that it's an IT function, and that more reporting about the past always provides more clarity about the future.

While it's certainly in IT's domain to establish and maintain data warehouses, and perhaps even help select and implement analytical tools, truly meaningful analysis of much of these data is extremely complex, and requires a unique skillset that should be based on business expertise first, analytical and statistical knowledge second, and technical knowledge a distant third. It's been easy to throw money at the problem and buy ever larger data warehouses, but performing meaningful analysis is a job often left undone.

Secondly, as every investment prospectus somberly notes: "Past performance is not indicative of future returns." It's attractive to think that if you just had a better report, you'd always make better decisions, but management can't always be focused on the past. If poor decisions are a routine occurrence at your company, more data and more reports probably won't engender a massive shift in competence.

Moving on

As I mentioned in the first installment, these distractions can be leveraged in the CIO's favor. Many trigger discussions between IT and peers outside IT, and if you're willing to study and learn your business, you can shift the discussion from "why aren't we using technology X" to "what business problems can I help you solve?"

There's a delicate balance, as the modern CIO must be aware of technological trends and have a response to the major innovations of the day. However, the best technologies enable and accelerate good processes and organizational dynamics rather than somehow replace them. Cultivating and sharing this view will move you from distracted technologist to rational and trusted advisor.