by Kim S. Nash

What CIOs Get Wrong About Emerging Technology

Dec 15, 2009
Cloud ComputingInnovation

Clayton Christensen, professor at Harvard Business School and expert on disruptive innovation, talks about how new technologies such as cloud computing mean big changes for the CIO role and why they still don't get alignment.

What about the CIO role do you think is changing?

I don’t think we’ve seen significant enough change. But in the next five years, it will be very dramatic. Interesting disruptions loom, such as cloud computing, Google’s Android operating system and mobile telecom.

Cloud computing—any computing over the Internet—just isn’t as good as enterprise computing. It’s not as secure, not as fast, not as reliable as your internal network.

But like all disruptions, it’s getting bigger and better. As it does, it pulls applications, one by one, out of the corporate network into its world. CIOs have to manage that.

In the past, the CIO’s role has been deciding what services and what software he is going to make available to the users of his network. As users source more of what they use from the Internet, they will use applications more on an as-needed basis.

The CIO’s role must be to help people find what they need on the Internet and create security systems to be sure the corporation is not compromised.

Can’t CIOs just block these applications?

Not really. Look at e-mail. E-mail is increasingly done on BlackBerrys rather than on laptops and in airports rather than at the office.

That’s just the first manifestation of individuals choosing to use one platform versus another and it’s very hard to stop. Others are deciding to use Google Docs, not Microsoft Word.

Should we still be talking about business-IT alignment?

Unfortunately, we’re not beyond it yet, but it’s a problem with all management, not just CIOs. Executives conceive of their markets incorrectly.

Most companies developing a new product know they can’t make something that does everything for everyone. So they develop a product to target a segment of the market. Forty-five-to 65-year-old males with college degrees. Middle-income females with kids.

CIOs try to define the average need of all the customers—the users—in a particular department. But the average customer doesn’t exist.

What should they be doing?

The customer is actually the wrong unit of analysis. It’s the job that the customer is trying to accomplish that’s the correct unit.

Understanding the job connects your development efforts with what causes the consumer to purchase and the user to adopt. The job is like true north for CIOs.

When you nail a job with your system, competitors have a very hard time copying you.

Every CEO wants to make money for his company. They want to be smart and maybe cool. They want to be Steve Jobs. What do CIOs want to be?

Deep down in my heart, I know CIOs want to make people happy. They want to make their customers as effective in doing their jobs as they possibly can. When you see them offering technology for technology’s sake, or see their customers having to do workarounds because the data doesn’t come at them in a way that helps, it’s because the CIOs have thought of their world by product category. “We need to upgrade the ERP system.” Not “We need to find a new way to coordinate this information to help this person do his job.”

I’m surprised to hear CIOs still talking about how they can get a seat at the table. Do they have an inferiority complex?

When CIOs are not pulled by fellow C-level executives to the table, it’s because CIOs have framed their mission by product or customer category. Not by this idea of doing jobs well.”

Contact Senior Editor Kim S. Nash at

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