Web 2.0: Just another technology?

Wikis, blogs and other social networking technologies are all the talk, as is the generation gap for CIOs. But is this a real threat to CIOs, or just another issue to delegate?

Ever since the PC snuck into corporate America through the departmental back door, CIOs have been dogged by the stereotype of being hidebound and slow to adapt to technical change. The accusation has surfaced once again in light of Web 2.0, a trend that incorporates collaboration technologies such as blogs, wikis and social networking sites.

Who wants to learn Web 2.0?

To kids who've grown up with computers and who seem to live for social networking sites such as MySpace, the study of computer science -- programming, specifically -- is simply a big bore.

Experts say that mind-set is partially to blame for the alarming decline in students declaring computer science as a major -- 32% in just the past four years, according to the Association for Computing Machinery.

Eager to breathe new life into this ailing discipline, IBM, in conjunction with the University of Arizona, is making computer school "cool" again by offering classes in the hippest of technologies: Web 2.0.

Analyst firm Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., predicts that by 2008, most businesses will be using Web 2.0 technologies. As companies increase their reliance on new Web-based technologies to capitalize on new business opportunities, the industry is showing greater demand for technology experts who can build and manage Web 2.0 resources including wikis, blogs, user groups and forums.

The curriculum is designed to equip students with skills in the creation and management of online communities. The IBM/University of Arizona partnership is the first of its kind to bring these principles to the classroom, giving students early exposure to influential, emerging technologies. This is also the first in a new suite of courses from the university's MIS department related to managing and marketing online services.

"We want to get these kids excited with the Web. 2.0 technologies," said Mark Hanny, vice president of Academic Initiatives, technical training and support at IBM. "It's crucial to come in with some cool stuff" and not bog them down with "too much theory." -- Kate Evans-Correia

As corporate users embrace Web 2.0 technologies, they have stirred a debate about just how much CIOs need to know in order to manage these new tools. Do they have to start blogging on a daily basis, or can these tasks be delegated?

Some see this as a typical new technology adoption cycle, in which the technology in question crosses over from the consumer side and infiltrates the enterprise. "This is just like any kind of new technology; rewind the tape 10 years and we have this conversation about cell phones," said Renee Baker Arrington, vice president of Pearson Partners International Inc., a Dallas-based executive placement firm.

But others see CIOs being left behind. According to Lynda Radosevich, a New York-based consultant specializing in social media, CIOs are certainly not at the forefront of Web 2.0 technology implementations. "It's only in a few rare cases that the CIOs are initiators of social networking projects. We see business heads of local departments initiating these, while IT tends to come in with worries about security and privacy," she said. In fact, Radosevich said some vendors bypass the CIO and sell directly to the business side of the house.

The key to bringing the value of Web 2.0 technologies into full flower seems to lie in how well CIOs evaluate each technology, not whether they personally use such tools.

"There are two different perspectives on this," said Tony Young, CIO of Informatica Corp. in Redwood City, Calif. "One is what's the business use for them, and the other is what the implications are of some of these tools in terms of workforce productivity."

Young has evaluated social networking sites as well as other Web 2.0 tools for their business worth, and proceeded accordingly. For him, this involves a basic conceptual understanding of each technology and the ability to understand its business value. "For example, MySpace, in my opinion, doesn't have value as a business tool in my enterprise," he said. "But technologies like wikis, blogs, webcasting and podcasting are all tools that we are leveraging and that users are embracing in various ways."

Keep your technological skills up

These are skills that every CIO ought to already command, noted Martha Heller, managing director in the IT Leadership Practice at Z Resource Group Inc., an executive search group in Westboro, Mass. "In the same way that CIOs need to be aware of SOA or Web services, they need to be aware of the different technologies coming down the path and which will have an impact and which won't," she said. "I don't see that as revolutionary."

The true test lies in how quickly CIOs can embrace and integrate new technologies. "The CIO role should be to look at how people are using these tools and integrate them into what the company already uses," Radosevich said. "By sussing out and making technologies available, they can centralize the usage of Web 2.0 technologies."

Jeff Patterson, vice president of business technology at Visible Path Corp. in Foster City, Calif., has taken this tack, implementing and managing most of his company's Web 2.0 technology through the IT group. He claims there is a business value to doing so. For example, his company uses subscription newsgroups that work like email lists but are accessible and organized by content.

"We worry that groups will set up their own email alias groups," he said. "That gives us no central repository, and information can get lost, so we encourage people to just let us know what they want and we'll make the tools available."

It's all about being receptive, Young agreed. "We don't want to be the disabler," he said. "It's gotten to the point where most people ask us about technologies first, which we appreciate."

Web 2.0 technologies sign of cultural gap?

Some think CIOs need to do more with this technology than implement it, however. Instead, CIOs need to think about the generational culture in which these tools flourish.

It's become a common topic of discussion in IT circles, including the recent Gartner Symposium/ITxpo conference in Orlando, Fla., earlier this month. Gartner analyst Tom Bittman noted how the culture, not the technology, holds CIOs back. (See "Gartner: Age does matter.")

More Web 2.0 resources
Gartner: Age does matter

IT execs eager to exploit Web 2.0 wave

Take wikis, for example. "There are a whole set of cultural norms that go beyond the technology of wikis, such as an openness to editing and changing other peoples' work," said Madeline Weiss, advanced practices council program director for the Society for Information Management in Chicago. "While it's somewhat of a generational thing, it's also an organizational culture thing."

Baker Arrington said she does think intensity of technology usage varies by generation, as some of the younger generation grew up using a keyboard or mouse, so it's more natural to them. But all in all, it's a matter of individual preference for many, she said. Besides, as Young points out, there are plenty of boomer CIOs who are hip-deep in the latest technology.

"Life is a bell curve, and the 80-20 rule is in effect," he said. "I'm sure there are some boomers with MySpace accounts, just as there are some Gen-Y people that don't have them."

The bottom line: Most companies are not putting Web 2.0 technology experience on their list of 'must haves' for hiring CIOs.

"I haven't seen this, either in CIO job searches or with CIOs who are looking for successors," Heller said. "Good IT leaders don't have to be on top of a specific technology. They need to be leaders, they need to be adaptable and know how to respond in times of rapid change. They can hire people to have the right technical skills."

Carol Hildebrand is a contributing writer based in Wellesley, Mass. To comment on this story, email editor@searchcio.com.

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