Does the CIO reflect the culture of his organization?

I’ve begun working on a new book about CIO’s, one which involve my interviewing several of these folks around the country and various other parts of the world.  I’ll give you more details about the book itself in the weeks and months to come; and I’ll also provide some impressions, opinions, and reactions as the project proceeds.

At this point, I’m at the very beginning; if this was your project, you would probably start the same way I did: develop a list of potentially interesting CIO’s to talk to, figure out what kind of relevant questions you want to ask them, and then begin contacting them to see if they’ll be willing to contribute some time to put their answers (and thus their own opinions and experiences) on the record. I’ve got an initial list of about 40 companies that are either very large, or very successful, or very well-known, or very controversial, or some combination of those attributes — and whose CIO’s I suspect might have played a significant role in their company’s activities. And I’ve got a bunch of questions in about 10 different areas, most of which are fairly obvious and predictable — after all, if you had a chance to interview a CIO for an hour or so, you would probably come up with a similar list of questions.

But I’ve already run into a couple of surprises: first, it’s not so easy to identify and locate these folks; and second, some of them really don’t want to talk to someone outside their organization. And I’m beginning to wonder whether this reflects the overall culture of the organization for whom they work, or whether it’s just an individual personality quirk. Time will tell; I’ll let you know what I think after I’ve finished tracking down and contacting everyone that I want to contact.

As for the difficulty in finding them … well, think about it for a minute: what would you do if you wanted to identify the CIO of XYZ Inc. and contact him/her? Chances are you’d start by going to XYZ’s website, and looking for the page that says “Board of Directors” or “Management Team.” And indeed that would be sufficient in several cases; but in some other cases (including some that took me quite by surprise), it’s evident that the CIO is not on the Board, nor is he/she on the same level as various other CxO officers in the organization, and is sometimes not even a Vice President. On the other hand, some of the huge multinational companies have a CIO for the top-level corporate entity, as well as CIO’s for various subsidiaries, divisions, or regional operations.

If you can’t find the CIO on the company website, how about a Google search? What could be simpler than a search phrase like, “XYZ CIO”? Again, it works in several cases; but in some other cases, it generates nothing but confusion. One of the things that quickly becomes apparent is that there is still a great deal of turnover in this job position: just because you found a vintage-2008 trade-magazine article about XYZ’s CIO doesn’t mean that he or she is still there. Considering the amount of financial and organizational turmoil that took place between 2007 and 2010, I guess that shouldn’t really be a surprise; some CIO’s retired for “personal reasons,” others moved onto greener pastures, and some simply disappeared.

The final surprise was the reaction I got from some of the CIO’s when I finally tracked them down, and asked if they would consider being interviewed for the book. I realized that many of these folks would have no idea who I am, so I attached a link to the bio page on my website, and included a brief summary in my invitation letter, explaining that I could walk on water, leap over tall buildings in a single bound, and perform various other miracles. And I also realized that many (if not all) of these folks would be quite busy, and that they might respond with a note that said something like, “Thanks for the invitation; I’m flattered that you considered me for your book. However, I’m very, very very busy, and I simply won’t have time to talk to you until hell freezes over.”

What I didn’t expect was the reaction along the lines of, “No. Hell, no. Why would I want to talk to you – or anyone else – about what we do with information in our organization? What good could possibly come of it?”

Of course, I was tempted to reply with all kinds of eloquent reasons about why they should consider talking to me, but then it occurred to me: what if their refusal was not just a reflection of insecurity, embarrassment, or bad manners – but rather a reflection of their opinion that IT (in the broadest sense of the word), and the way the manage information, was a significant “core differentiator” or competitive advantage for their organization? Obviously, I wouldn’t expect any company to divulge the proprietary details of the “intellectual property” embedded in their information systems — but I’m now beginning to think that some organizations really don’t want to say anything about their “information asset” and the way they use it. That wouldn’t be a surprise if it was the CIA I was trying to talk to; but it was a surprise when I talked to … well, I’ll have to hold off on the details until all of this settles down.

I suspect, also, that once I do begin talking to these CIO’s, I’m going to find that their opinions and reactions will reflect the overall “corporate culture” on a variety of technical issues (e.g., cloud computing, agile development) as well as a variety of social/human issues (e.g., the use of blogs and other social-media tools, and the corporate reaction to the younger generation’s use of technology). But it’s too early for me form any definite opinions about that. I’ll let you know as I gather more information…

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