CIO role through the lens of MIT: Agile rebel or company dishwasher?

The CIO role was under the microscope at MIT this week. Will CIOs be the standard bearers of the IT revolution or just stuck cleaning up the mess?

The revolution is here. The question is, will the CIO role survive it?

Linda Tucci
Linda Tucci

At this week's 9th annual MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, "Piloting the Untethered Enterprise," Joichi Ito, director of the esteemed MIT Media Lab, was asked to define what the untethered enterprise means to him. "I think roadmaps and plans and strategy are a kind of tether. I have heard senior people at Facebook flat out say, 'We don't do strategy. By the time we have a strategy the world has changed,'" Ito said.

What Facebook does possess is agility, he said -- enterprise agility, at that. Facebook is a huge company, not some wee startup (botched IPO notwithstanding), and it manages to release new features every week. Compare that with a company like Hewlett-Packard Co. with its five-year roadmaps. "They have to get out of hardware because they can't keep up," Ito said.  Then, compare that to companies like Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and Facebook, which are moving into hardware precisely because they are agile.

"Agility will eat strategy every morning," he said.

But how exactly does that get factored into the role of the CIO?

Ito and two other MIT professors were billed as the "academic" panel at the one-day CIO conference. They were there, in the words of the program, "to lend advice on how best to leverage technology" for a mobile and distributed workforce and to talk about the "next wave of technologies that will change the way companies and managers work."

Shoot first and ask questions later seemed to be the theme of many of the panelist comments. Ito's advice to people who pitch him an idea? Build it. The cost of innovation has come down, thanks to technologies like the Internet and cloud. "I always say, practice before theory. Just try the damn thing."

But I'm not sure about all this. The trouble with taking advice from academicians -- and I should know, as I'm married to one -- is that they have learned how to talk about stuff in a way that sounds unambiguous and compelling. The job of professors after all is to shape ideas into words that resonate with their students so they don't forget the material (good luck with that). And if you have a skeptical audience, I suppose being really emphatic can cow resistance, compared to a more nuanced view that opens the door a crack for other interpretations. At least that's what I have learned listening to my husband "argue" with me. 

Agility will eat strategy every morning.

So I was not exactly surprised that the academic panel on "Piloting the Untethered Enterprise" sizzled with provocative statements. I was especially struck by the contrast between these campus revolutionaries and the sober CIO panel up next, tapped to talk about "The Dual Mandates of the CIO: Cost Efficiency and Value Delivery while Supporting Growth and Value." In the latter panel, everything was more circumspect. "It depends" was used more than once.

The spirited call to action from the academicians made me wonder afresh what's in store for the CIO role. The truth is that with the digitalization of everything, it is easier to be agile. As panelist Erik Brynjolfsson, director of MIT's Center for Digital Business, pointed out, compared to atoms, bits are a lot easier to replicate. Take, for example, CVS. The retailer replicated a prescription drug-ordering system at 8,000 locations practically with the flick of a switch because the process was digitized, gaining a "huge competitive advantage" according to Brynjolfsson.

And it's not as though the academicians didn't back up their provocative claims with deeds. Panelist Anant Agarwal, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, heads up a new MIT and Harvard University venture called edX.  The aim of the edX open source platform is to educate 1 billion people around the world using online technologies, including computer grading and forums where students can help each other. The inaugural course on electrical circuits drew 120,000 students, employing the same resources used to teach a class of 100 -- three instructors and four teaching assistants. That is a disruptive business model.

Likewise, as director of the MIT Media Lab, Ito leads an organization that, as he puts it, "is all about doing things without asking permission." Unlike traditional R&D labs where the research has to be directed and the direction at least hypothesized in order to get funded, the Media Lab "is trying to discover those disruptive things on the periphery that you don't really know until you get there." Fortunately, a big chunk of its funding allows it to hunt down disruption.

But what about the CIOs in the audience who have to filter and help synthesize the flood of information generated by this untethered enterprise? In the previous panel, CEOs were asked if the CIO role would survive the decade and the consumerization of IT. Of course it will, said Richard Soley, chairman and CEO at Object Management Group Inc.

"We have seen transitions before, from mainframe to mini, from mini to PC, and now we are seeing PC pushed out to the edges because of cloud computing," Soley said. But standards are the foundation of innovation, he said, and CIOs will once again play handmaiden to the latest revolution in computing. Or, as Soley likes to believe, the role of CIO will be chief innovation officer.

"Those people out on the edge are only going to care about their own function. They are not going to care about integration with the rest of the company, so you are going to need to reintegrate their information again. You're going to need to solve the security problem for them again. You're going to need to be able to roll up their data again. All of the things that happened in the previous transitions have to be done all over again. Unfortunately, it means doing the dishes a lot more, again."

So, while the enterprise is becoming untethered, are CIOs the standard bearers of innovation, the agile agents of the destruction or June Cleaver stuck cleaning up after everybody? I guess it depends. 

Let us know what you think about the column; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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