CIO Masterclass: Lesson six - Technology and common sense

The customer is too often forgotten as suppliers scramble to outdo each other's revenues with new technologies and new versions...

The customer is too often forgotten as suppliers scramble to outdo each other's revenues with new technologies and new versions of old products. That's why it's essential for the CIO to keep a cool head and resist being tempted away from what's best over the long term, argues John Handby.

Today's chief information officers are rightly focused on getting business benefits from technology and will have a senior colleague within their command responsible for ensuring the infrastructure and computer operations needed by the company are in place. But the CIO does need to become involved in crucial decisions about technology directions.

It is very easy for companies to waste a great deal of money by taking the wrong decisions about the technologies that support them. This happens when somebody makes a bad judgment about which technologies are going to win out in the ongoing competition between suppliers, or falls prey to a "disciple" for an emerging technology that fails to live up to its early promise.

The task of the CIO is to take a cool, dispassionate look at technologies on the market, major version updates and so on, to decide optimum investment strategies for the company, always seeking to move towards rationalisation and consistency of technology platforms. Such an approach offers opportunities both to save money and to greatly increase the efficiency of company operations.

Competition among vendors is fierce and every year sees renewed hype about products in the marketplace and new versions of them. Major suppliers are always looking for ways of developing products with added functionality so that they can generate new revenues, whether or not we really need the additional features on offer. But do we really care whether Sun Microsystems'
"Do we really care whether Sun Microsystems' Scott McNealy, Oracle's Larry Ellison or the ubiquitous Bill Gates is top of the rich list? In this West Coast macho contest it often seems the customer is forgotten"
John Handby
Scott McNealy, Oracle's Larry Ellison or the ubiquitous Bill Gates is top of the rich list? In this West Coast macho contest it often seems the customer is forgotten.

It is always difficult to determine technology trends and the period over which reliable forecasts can be made has been progressively reducing. It follows that it is difficult to future-proof. But some measures can be taken that help - important among these is sticking to mainstream platforms that are unlikely to be marginalised, and reducing the number of technology platforms deployed. Sometimes of course a genuinely new product will come on to the market that enables a different approach. Then careful decisions are required about any investment and its timing.

A sensible programme of adopting mainstream technologies and applying them consistently across the organisation will also ensure the best chance of weathering the impact of possible mergers and acquisitions. There is more likelihood of merging with another company using similar technologies and reducing the islands of legacy that result in these situations.

Right now the industry is going through a period of relative stability. This may seem a curious thing to say in the light of all the new products that besiege us, but very few, if any, of these are likely to lead to a step change. Some years ago we moved from a world dominated architecturally by IBM through a period of uncertainty to arrive at one dominated by Microsoft. In response to antitrust moves, Bill Gates argued that action by the US government was unnecessary because sooner or later someone else would turn up to seize the crown.

For some open standards have always seemed the answer, and in an ideal world they probably are. But while they have brought some order - Unix being the obvious case in point - they have failed to deliver true portability. When you think about it the reason is obvious. Open standards fly in the face of the commercial interests of vendors and are therefore never likely to be more than partially successful.

But whatever the answer, getting the technology choices right remains one of the most important things a CIO can get right for their company.

Too much choice?
Do you welcome the constant stream of "new" technologies or do they just muddy the waters? How do you keep your head? Let us know your views.

John Handby is chief executive of CIO Connect, the UK forum for senior IT executives. He has held a succession of CIO positions for major organisations including Glaxo Wellcome, National Power, Consignia (formerly the Post Office) and in central government

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