I've just returned from MIT Sloan’s CIO Symposium in Cambridge, a dependably instructive event in my couple of years attending. This year’s event was aptly titled, “Piloting the Untethered Enterprise,” a nod to the disruptions of cloud computing, consumer-driven mobility, social media and all that new workplace stuff.

The subtext on view was that opportunity and predictability can be the angel and the devil on the opposing shoulders of the IT leader, more keenly felt with business execution pressures higher than ever.

With the CIO caught in the middle of multiple demands and large trends, MIT’s event might have been titled, “Risk Versus Opportunity Cost,” or, depending on where you sit, “Hey guys, this stuff isn’t easy and we’re busy with what you’ve got us into already.”

Having lived it, the CIOs on hand here already know that success can be a matter of luck, timing or battles won at high cost and exertion. From experience, they especially remember the latter and in times of change and uncertainty like they face now, they sensibly view big change as risk.  Their leaders and the pundits tend to see it as one chance to stay competitive.

The keynote panels played it out as you might expect, as CEOs, academics and CIOs each had their moment.

First up were the CEOs who said they are confronting weak employment and higher productivity in a flattened economy, Customer facing solutions, cloud cost sensibility and mobile users and consumers are on their radar.  To a person, the CEOs looked at the CIOs to create business value and learn the customer marketing opportunities of new technologies including consumer devices and social media.

Next came the keynote panel of MIT academics, professors who stood as the cheerleaders of IT departing from its old habits of maintenance and big-ticket lifecycles. 

Joichi Ito, MIT’s new Media Lab Director, had an especially compelling academic view of why IT should fret less about standardization and policy in order to discover untried paths to success that business senses and wants to uncover. He observed, institutionally, that because of Moore’s Law, the Internet and collapsing infrastructure cost that “the cost of innovation started to go nearly to zero” and traditional research labs were losing their edge. At that point opportunity cost, not the risk of change is the real downside.

“As you know from Internet startups like Facebook and Twitter and Yahoo, they built the product before they worried about the business model,” Ito said. Large companies are tougher with their compulsive and risk-averse need for proposals and feasibility studies, he added.

The message from the academics was, get the ideas out there, let the good ones get traction before you worry about them and then pay attention to the winners. “Agility will beat strategy every morning,” Ito said. “Tethering to assets is the major liability that large institutions have.”

That teed it up for the CIO Keynote panel, where as you’d expect, some reasoned venting ensued from CIOs already managing the risk of large existing investments.

Nice, but “aspirational” said a CIO on the following panel. “A bit academic,” said another, given the existing scale and commitment of current investments.

None of these CIOs opposed the need to jettison debilitating IT practices in the drive for competitive success and seemed to welcome the chance to evolve. For them, the head in hand moment was the déjà vu of starting down a new but familiar path, a three-month mission that turns into a three-year ordeal for all the familiar reasons. 

“We’re moving into an era of big bets,” said the CIO from Underwriters Laboratories, calling for a strategic view into demand for cloud, mobility and other emergent strategies. He added that this was at least as much about memories of past experiences and how hard it was to build and integrate systems core systems, a new headache that falls to the owners of every new technology cycle.

Very often, that is still “trusted IT,” not a multitenant vendor with limited SLA indemnity. A CIO from Booz Allen Hamilton declared that competitive advantage should be the mission of IT, but that big captive IT investments are not a bad thing on their own when competitively successful on their own merit. 

It’s the same old enterprise tension, ratcheted by the emergence of service vendors who promise to take IT’s mission into an elastic and cost effective model. That they’re increasingly filling that role in areas like sales force automation, HR and even finance is not in doubt. The newer wrinkle is that providers can take their message straight to business -- who can take it straight to market -- and clean up the mess later.

Academics call it “liberating,” and while it is part of the job of a CIO to be willing, some recognize a trap. When and how fast it arrives is a cultural event.

Stay tuned.

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