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The four types of CIO

What do Alan Greenspan, a hockey player, an ostrich and the Pied Piper have in common? Each describes a different breed of CIO -- you don't want to be one of the last two.

The turn of the century was one hell of a party -- remember?

With Y2k looming and the Internet set to change everything, CIOs were the rock stars of business. And as for cost and ROI -- who cared? We had those fabulous stock options that were going to make us all filthy rich.


Don't have a CIO? Rent one!

In 1998, when John Smith joined Company X as the CFO of a $500M wholesale distribution company, he never dreamed that, within two years, he would fire the CIO and assume his duties. "Normally, I can't stand firing people. But after writing off $16M from his failed ERP implementation, I took huge pleasure in firing that guy."

Three years later, sensing this paralysis and an inability to support new customers, John found an outside service provider. The goal: to develop an IT strategy and hire a temporary CIO.

Today, Company X has shaken off its Pied Piper Legacy. In fact, through an aggressive program of IT enablement, they're developing badly needed operational capabilities.

At least in the hangover of the '70s disco scene, the worst we had to deal with were closets filled with really bad clothes. Today, the worst projects have been canceled, just as many of the non-recoverable costs have been written off. What many companies have yet to shake, however, is what I call the "CIO Legacy," a syndrome that I still find at work in companies of all sizes and in all industries.

The four CIO types -- and two to watch

It's not that companies didn't learn from the tech debacle. Rather, by running in the opposite direction, many learned exactly the wrong lessons -- lessons as predictable as they are dangerous.

The good news is, these CIO Legacies can be fixed. But that means understanding your basic CIO types. As I see it, there are four:

The Alan Greenspan

If you were exceptionally lucky, you had The Alan Greenspan CIO -- that rare breed who understood the nexus between business and technology. Whether exceptional or just plain lucky, the Alan Greenspan CIO stood the course outlined by Michael Porter and Michael Hammer during the late '90s, namely, to focus on business fundamentals and avoid irrational exuberance. If this was your CIO Legacy, you're in good hands. In fact, you can stop reading here.

The Hockey Player

As the name suggests, The Hockey Player took his lumps and spent his time in the penalty box but emerged a wiser, more realistic CIO. Again, as with The Alan Greenspan, you're probably safe with the Hockey Player. He or she brings scars and savvy, plus a rare note of humility. The problems come with the next two.

The Ostrich

No doubt many of us wish we had kept our heads in the sand during the Tech Bubble. But three years later, to still have your head in the sand, now that's a problem. Who is the Ostrich? Typically, he or she is a non-technical operations manager or a former system's administrator -- sometimes a CFO if the CIO position doesn't exist. Whatever the pedigree, the Ostrich hole is an antiquated, oblivious environment, and in the current economic doldrums, many companies are getting away with it. But what will happen when the economy turns? How will IT scale to support new business? Read on -- it won't.

The Pied Piper

In the Pied Piper, we find the ultimate failed legacy. The Pied Piper knew that technology had revolutionized IT, and he or she convinced everyone to follow. Minor issues like ROI or the strategic linkage between business and technology -- well, who had time for that? The legacy, of course, was a disaster: delays, cost overruns, and as for ROI, that's an IOU.

The irony is, whether you had an Ostrich or a Pied Piper -- in other words, a do-nothing or a do-everything -- the results are the same. Fear of failure. Fear of spending. Even fear of the unknown. Another word for it is "paralysis."

Different CIOs, same problem

At first, it seems impossible that The Pied Piper and Ostrich should leave virtually the same legacy, but there it is. What has broken is Corporate's total loss of confidence in IT. Do the minimum. Play it safe and go away, the underlying assumption being that mediocrity and stalemate don't cost much -- at least not in the short term.

And in the short-term, business leaders get the cost saving they want, and true enough, nothing terrible happens. The system works, if not well, then well enough. But again, what happens when the economy turns? Or when the break/fix strategy yields a system that is just plain antiquated and broken? Or when you realize that neither you nor your customers can trust your data or even work together effectively? The list goes on.

At about that time, the CIO firing process begins. Strange thing, though -- often as not, the CIO is in fact the CFO -- the CFO who stepped into the breach when the job was gapped. Imagine: finding your career at risk. And all for an IT job that you never asked for or wanted!

Goodbye, legacy. Hello, future.

So, if your company carries the Pied Piper/Ostrich legacy—is it destined to fail? Of course not. Especially if your company learns the right lessons from its mistakes, while shaking the CIO Legacy.

Unfortunately, my recent experiences show a different story. I continue to see Ostrich and Pied Piper companies that just can't seem to get over it -- get over the embarrassment that they truly believed that dotcom disco fever would last forever -- so much so, that they are deathly afraid to invest in anything that doesn't 100% guarantee ROI.

Unfortunately, there are very few 100% guarantees in today's business environment.

The point is, it's okay. Save the orange bellbottoms for Halloween. As for your IT operation, with some strategic willpower, and maybe a little technical expertise, you can start planning for a new day.

Michael Brice is a partner at Unisys Corp. He can be reached at

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