Are CIO’s Really IT Smart?

I have to start by expressing my continuing pleasure at the reporting of the Wall Street Journal. We’ve only been subscribing since the beginning of the school year, but since that time there have been a number of great articles on a variety of subjects. Recently I blogged on one report covering advances in healthcare delivery. This week, they published a detailed review of IT, it’s impact on businesses, and the challenges that corporate America faces with understanding and leveraging IT.

The motivation for creating the section was apparently a survey where only 26% of business leaders reported being smart about IT. The editors felt that this was too low. While I agree that this number is much lower than it should be, I am not entirely certain that it is accurate. I think the number is likely higher than reality, because many business leaders have too high an opinion of their IT knowledge. Frankly, I think that 26 percent would only be low for CIOs, and then only by about 10-20 percentage points. Of the many CIOs I’ve met over the years, most fall into two categories. Either they are old network or programming guys who have little appreciation for increasing business value, or they are graduates of some MBA program or another, remember a couple of lectures on IT, and figure that this is the best route to the coveted CEO job. They usually climb the ladder by skipping any time in the “trenches”, learning about how the world really works.

As evidence supporting my rather insulting assertion, we need to look no farther than SONY and their Playstation Network debacle (6 days along and going strong). I can’t identify a CIO of SONY Playstation, but since Drew Martin is CIO of a SONY Electronics, which appears to be a parent of SONY Playstation, I imagine he is the one to shoulder the blame. Now, we are talking about an organization entirely focused on IT products. Not only did they clearly fail to secure their network, they also did not have any form of backup in place. To make matters worse, and this goes to the crux of my argument, they have utterly failed to leverage a key element of 21st century IT to help mitigate damage amongst their customers. They have almost completely failed to utilize social media to communicate. Any CIO who claims to be IT smart, would realize that social media can be your savior in these sorts of situations.

Of course, if one looks at Martin’s resume, you can’t be surprised that he isn’t that “smart”. He doesn’t appear to have any practical experience whatsoever. He took his Cornell engineering degree to the Irish Basketball league, and then immediately to Accenture as a consultant. I’ve never ceased to be amazed at how consulting companies will hire people with no experience to consult. After 4 years as a JIT consultant he then is qualified to be a senior level manager at Pepsi, in the business process improvement area. Perhaps he learned much while there, but its interesting that he doesn’t appear to have any real experience implementing IT solutions. Directors tend to not be in the details (presumably because they have spent sufficient time gaining experience in the details), and I don’t think he is an exception. That he would then create a culture that has little understanding of how to leverage IT to enhance the business is less than surprising. This is all quite sad, because I would hope that someone who has real experience in business process reengineering and systems implementation would be the ideal CIO. I am just not sure that he has real experience.

Of course, I didn’t intend for this to be an anti-SONY diatribe. I didn’t expect to focus this much energy on one CIO. On the other hand, I didn’t expect Martin to fit my model of the poorly prepared CIO quite so well. In the future, I do plan on returning to the Wall Street Journal, and explore the details of some of the articles, which should inspire a great deal of soul searching among IT professionals in corporate America.

Update: You should watch this video in light of the Playstation disaster.