In the 1990s, any self-respecting CIO with a travel budget would make his or her annual trip to Las Vegas for the Comdex show. It was the place to be, and a chance to rub shoulders with the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison and Michael Dell. It was also a great way to meet people and companies and really find out what was happening, and what might happen a few months down the line.
In the UK, we had Compec and the Which Computer? shows, which also attracted large crowds in their heydays. But the world changed, and by 2004, the mighty Comdex gave up the ghost and cancelled through lack of interest. No one wanted to go to big shows any more.
So how do today's CIOs stay on top of developments, and where do they go for information and even inspiration, now that the shows have lost their sparkle?
Ian Campbell, head of IT at British Energy and chairman of the Corporate IT Forum (Tif), a subscriber organisation representing the corporate IT user community, says he gets most value these days from talking to others in similar roles to himself.
Networking with peers
"Networking and sharing experience directly tends to have a lot of value," he says. "We are inundated by online marketing and cold calling from suppliers. But if you speak to someone and you get one reference on a topic you are interested in, that is worth 1,000 cold calls. If you know the people through Tif or CIOConnect, they are not going to give you duff information."
He says those conferences that remain tend to lack focus and are too sales oriented, but that smaller roundtables work well, especially the ones like those organised through Tif, where suppliers are not present and members meet with their peers.
When it comes to looking at a new technology that could be of interest, he says he tends to use a variety of sources and methods. "We do a bit of research internally and send one or two people to seminars or events to broaden our understanding. With Tif, I can suggest it as a subject for members to come and share their experience," he says.
In addition, he will occasionally invite in one or two suppliers to join a roundtable and share their views on what is happening, but strictly in what he calls "non-sales mode".
For Alan Bowling, CIO for food manufacturer Northern Foods and vice-chairman of the SAP Users Group, it is also the real-life experiences of other users that carry the most weight. "The most highly attended sessions at our conference tend to be where users are talking about their own stories. Real life experience adds terrific value to the use of the software," he says.
Utilising user groups
For that very reason, he says he sees an upturn in the fortunes of user groups, though not in the same form as in the 1980s and 1990s when activity was clustered around hardware suppliers such as IBM, ICL and DEC.
Now, user groups tend to revolve around software such as SAP and Oracle, and Bowling says they carry a lot of weight and influence with the suppliers.
"The users have a lot of input into the development of SAP's roadmap," he says. Through various "influence groups", users are able to discuss areas of business or technology, and raise particular frustrations they are encountering.
"SAP does not have a licence on all the ideas on how to run a business. They have a view, but they encourage influence groups to look at how the software is used and make contributions. SAP benefits because it will end up marketing a product that somebody wants to buy," he says.
Over at retailer the John Lewis Partnership, Frank Cordrey, head of development support, says he stays up to date by using RSS feeds, and often fills his evenings with a good read of the trade magazines. "You have to be enthusiastic to stay up to date," he says.
Select the right events
Like most other senior IT people he is selective about the events he attends. "I am not a great exhibition lover," he says. "You could spend all your time going to exhibitions, and I am not sure you get a lot out of them."
Conferences are different though, and he is a big admirer of the Gartner Symposium. "I always send along a couple of people who will pick up a lot of ideas, plus a CD to share with the rest of the organisation," he says.
He is also a member of Tif, and says he finds the forum useful for validating ideas and sounding out other users to get their ideas during smaller roundtable events. Some of his staff belong to groups such as the Oracle User Group, as well as others dealing with specific areas such as point of sale.
Occasionally, they will also organise a study tour overseas to exchange ideas with other retailers. "The retail world is not that global so there is little competition between us and we can be quite open," he says.
Value internal staff
But Cordrey also values the views and knowledge of his internal staff, many of whom have been with the company for many years and have acquired a lot of knowledge that they can share through normal everyday working. He also accesses the knowledge of his staff through the more formal setting of a technical council that he runs internally, where new technologies are examined and discussed.
In the public sector, the pressure on CIOs to stay abreast of developments is no less intense. "You are expected as a CIO to know everything about everything, then be able to present it in business language. And that is not really humanly possible," says Jos Creese, head of IT for Hampshire County Council.
"You have to rely on some clever strategies to ensure you do not simply skate on the surface, but at the same time you do not get labelled as someone who is only interested in the technology."
He too is a voracious reader, devouring journals, business articles and "anything I can lay my hands on that appears to have a relevance to what we are up against as an organisation".
Creese also tries to spend time with other CIOs and organisations to find out what they are doing. "I learn faster and can assimilate and adapt other ideas if I can see them working. The potential of technology becomes clear when you can actually see it working in another organisation," he says.
Sit down with suppliers
He is also not averse to sitting down with suppliers. "If you get a good relationship with your suppliers, in particular the right individuals, you can actually find out the real capability of products and technologies."
Creese's other advice is to retain a questioning and challenging approach to technology. Do not be frightened of asking silly questions, he says, and remember that as a CIO, you have a lot of experience to draw on. "The more things change, the more they stay the same. A lot of new technologies are similar to other stuff we have seen over the years, but in a different guise. So ask the questions - will it perform in the way that we want, is it as usable as they say."
Like most other CIOs, Creese subscribes to Gartner, and says he finds its input especially useful when contemplating big technology decisions. He also uses Socitm Insight, the local government service.
Creese has also used independent consultants to advise on the feasibility of certain new technologies. For instance, Bloor Associates has advised on thin client computing, and also on service oriented architecture.
Make best use of your people
He also advocates making best use of the people in your team. "I have some very technical and knowledgeable people who know more about the technology than I do. What I need to be able to do is make a judgement on competing technologies and competing choices in a business context. You cannot do that without an understanding of the technology."
To gain that understanding and of where a technology could be crucial to the future of the organisation, he will work hard to gain a deeper knowledge. "Every so often you identify that you need to know a little bit more about a technology because there is a priority within the organisation to start exploring it. That will be the point at which I put a cold towel around my head and do some rather tiresome backroom work to see what really is the potential of this technology.
"That is not just reading, but also going out and talking to people. Talking about these things around the water cooler is really very helpful if you talk to the right people."
The experience of all four IT chiefs shows how far IT has come, from back-room geek to a role that is far more engaged with the businesses and with peers in other organisations. As Bowling says, "The ability to network effectively with other CIOs is a vital skill, and is a valuable way of staying abreast of developments."
And through their various user groups, they really do seem to be able to influence the development of the products they buy, sometimes with the help of outside research groups and consultancies.