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How Techie are CIOs?
Ed Kohler

After attending the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, I left wondering how techie the CIOs attending really are. I have no doubt that they're extraordinarily competent when it comes to interacting with boards, understanding budgets, and negotiation large IT contracts, but what about this: One panel of four was asked if they had Skype accounts. Only one of four did.

Now, I can certainly understand that an CIO shouldn't be devoting time to giving a personal test-drive to every new start-up mentioned on TechCrunch, but Skype isn't just any start-up. The company has been around since 2003 and was acquired by Ebay in 2005. At any time, millions of people are using the product around the world to chat, talk, or video chat with people all over the world.

What was most shocking was that the non-Skype using CIOs didn't seem to even understand Skype's business model and implying that Skype is an ad-supported application rather than it's actual freemium model.

There is a serious break-down here. After 5 years, CIOs should universally understand at least how Skype works so they can make a rational decision about whether it may be an appropriate product to add to their communications mix.

Robert Cringely has a column out this week looking at the same issue at the CEO level. His perspectives on the technical skills at that roll sound similar:

IT Wars

Whether IT managers are promoted from within or brought from outside it is clear that they usually aren't hired for their technical prowess, but rather for their ability to get along with THEIR bosses, who are almost inevitably not technical. For every John Reed, who rose from IT to run CitiCorp (and ultimately failed), there are a thousand CEOs who want nothing to do with computers.

In today's technical landscape, corporations would be well served to look beyond the solutions presented to them from high priced sales teams with large expense budgets. They may be surprised at what they find.


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1. Posted by: Michael Janke on May 24, 2008 10:17 AM:

I'm not sure that for the majority of CIO's, it matters at all it they use Skype or know how it works. I'd say that it depends on

- the role of the CIO within the organization (verses the CTO, it there is one).

- the market space of the organization - are they in a space that is affected by or competes with Skype.

A CIO who is also playing the role of CTO in a phone company or communications related organization had better understand Skype, or that company is going to have a problem. At the other extreme, a CIO who is positioned as high level executive, and who has a techy CTO nearby, and who is in an industry that has nothing to do with communications really shouldn't know or care about Skype. For that person, a P2P VOIP application like Skype simply doesn't matter.

2. Posted by: ryan l on May 26, 2008 11:42 AM:

I agree with Micheal a CIO doesn't need to keep abreast of web 2.0 business model and technology unless they are competing in that particular space.

When it comes to freemium vs. ad supported, new business models, long tails and communication channels's the CMO that needs to be up to speed.

3. Posted by: Ed Kohler on May 27, 2008 3:00 PM:

Michael, if they work in any sort of communications field, their job depends on understanding the impact of Skype and other emerging technologies.

True, that the role varies, so may not be overly technical. However, they are generally responsible for the enterprise's IT budget and prioritize how that will be spent to make the company as efficient as possible. Given a choice between putting a handful of telepresence booths in place, or putting Skype on every employee's computer for free, I think it would be hard to justify telepresence, for example. It could still be justified at some level, but only if one truly understands their options.

ryan l, it seems like a CIO could benefit from understanding Ebay for procurement and sales, social networking site's impact on the business and how they could be used internally (a Digg for business growth ideas, for example), and communication tools like Skype, Meebo, or white-label Twitters for internal communications.

A CMO would need to understand similar tools, but for different business reasons.

4. Posted by: ryan l on May 28, 2008 12:58 PM:

yeah maybe I am grouping the CIO too much with a CTO but...IMHO when your talking business growth, communications, sales....your talking CMO/CEO relm.

Generally the telepresence stuff is locked down...I think most of the HP and Cisco stuff doesn't even travel on "the tubes" so to speak.

Privacy/security is a big issue with enterprise.

Skype is appears/ is perceived as wide open even if that is not the case.

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