Editor's Letter: The Tie That Binds Us

The subject of ethics came up the other day as I interviewed the CIO of a midmarket distributor based in Texas. His privately held company had a rather unusual mission statement. It was built around what he referred to as "Christian business principles," such as taking care of the enterprise and delivering value to customers. "We don't see it as anything out of the ordinary," this CIO told me. "It's just something we live and breathe."

Yet few IT executives have it this easy -- or so clearly spelled out -- when it comes to knowing exactly where their companies draw the ethical line. That uncertainty was obvious in our discussions with various CIOs for our story on this topic (Steering Clear of Vendor Bribes). When they exist at all, company policies vary widely on what is an acceptable gift, even in these post-Enron days of increased company scrutiny. Navigating relationships with vendors can feel like picking your way across a minefield in the dark. Can you enjoy a round of golf and a nice dinner out with a sales rep? Trade a customer reference for some additional discounting? Many would say sure, no harm done. But should you take home an iPod for your kid? Or accept an expensive bottle of wine? Most would say no, that's crossing the line.

With CIOs at midmarket companies likely to spend as much as $300 billion this year on IT, these are not idle questions. At Compass Health in Bellevue, Wash., CIO Rich De Brino had to rebuff two outright bribes from vendors during his first week on the job. At Herbalife International, CIO Aldo Moreno developed his own policy of no vendor socializing during contract negotiations. "We meet in my office. That's it," he says.

Yet as other executives we interviewed point out, getting to know and trust the people you're doing business with can reap additional value for your company. And while we can't solve this conundrum for you, we do offer a sample boilerplate for an ethics policy that may be helpful.

Another tough subject we've touched on this month is disaster recovery (Before Disaster Strikes). Just as this issue went to press, the horrific devastation of Hurricane Katrina was still riveting us all across the nation.

No amount of business continuity planning could have completely changed the course of the tragedy unfolding in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast communities. But IT will certainly play a critical role in the recovery and rebuilding.

Many midsized enterprises are taking a broader, more holistic approach to business continuity planning. Our story details the range of software products emerging in the business continuity arena, which encompasses everything from IT infrastructure backup to telephones, relocation sites for employees, and procedures for keeping in touch with suppliers when communication lines fail.

During the week following the storm, I was in Seattle at a Microsoft event for midmarket CIOs, and Bill Gates came in to speak with the assembled executives. He stood there, looking vulnerable and saddened, and then began to talk about Katrina's terrible impact. "Recovery will take a long time, but it's been great to see people rallying to help out," Gates said quietly. "Technology can help in re-establishing communications, in tracking people, in helping businesses get going again."

More than ever, it is the tie that binds us.

This was first published in September 2005

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