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 / Spring 2008 / Issue 50(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Practical Visionary

Today’s chief information officer must enable the organization to meet its strategic goals and to envision goals that were never before possible.

Illustration by Paul Wearing
When Michael Gliedman first arrived at the headquarters of the National Basketball Association in 1999 to become its new chief information officer (CIO), he found a splintered information technology environment. “Lots of things needed to be streamlined,” he says. Isolated pockets of IT were everywhere — the finance department ran its own computers, as did the NBA Entertainment group, which oversaw the television systems. And the “Y2K” threat of a massive breakdown of legacy computers was looming with no real plan in place to counter it.

Gliedman’s first task as CIO was to focus on the supply side of the IT business equation: bringing equipment up to speed, making sure core technology services worked consistently and efficiently, and consolidating the league’s IT efforts under his authority — a process that took Gliedman about 18 months. “There’s no way anybody in the business is going to take you seriously if it’s taking your guys 20 minutes to answer the help-desk phone,” he says. “The culture around here is that you spend a lot of time listening and quietly fixing things in the background. Then, after you’ve proven yourself, people will take you seriously enough to give you a seat at the table.”

For Gliedman, a seat at the NBA leadership table means developing and deploying technologies to support the three-pronged strategy of NBA Commissioner David Stern: boost international interest, build the female fan base, and increase the league’s overall audience. That, of course, is no easy task. Gliedman’s team now manages the NBA’s digital video archive — which captures video of every NBA game from multiple angles and stores hundreds of thousands of hours of video in accessible digital form — and runs the league’s Web site,, which in November 2007 set its all-time record for monthly traffic with more than 153 million visits and 38 million video streams. Gliedman is also developing ways to help support the NBA’s 30 teams through business intelligence programs that capture data on the league’s fan base. And he is following, testing, and implementing new technologies such as server virtualization, service-oriented architecture, and social networking to enhance the way employees collaborate with one another. All the while, Gliedman has to make sure basic operations run smoothly to maintain the trust that he has earned throughout the league.

In short, Gliedman is the model 21st-century CIO. These days he is training his focus on the demand side of the IT business equation, where the needs of the business are paramount, rather than spending most of his time on such typical supply-side concerns as cutting IT costs — although these responsibilities are still very important. He has become a serious contributor to the league’s business results by harnessing powerful new technologies that make real-time information attractive and accessible both internally and to the NBA’s constituents and fans around the world. That’s why he — like any other truly strategic CIO — needs to be among the inner circle of senior leadership. Unless the information chief knows where the organization is going, he or she won’t know what capabilities will be strategically paramount.

A strategic CIO has much to offer the organization; with specialized knowledge of the capabilities, requirements, and costs of new technology, the CIO is uniquely positioned to help the organization set priorities that affect every one of its operations. In Gliedman’s case, for example, he may play a catalytic role for new business development, helping NBA executives envision new possibilities, like creative uses of video clips, that might otherwise never occur to them.

The strategic CIO has never been more important to the future of the organization. As operations and markets become more fragmented, there is an ever-greater need for IT to bind together a company and augment its collective intellect (to paraphrase computer interface pioneer Douglas Engelbart). IT can be used to address problems of mounting complexity and to help an orga­nization move into new products, new processes, and new markets, at home and around the world. New technologies are always changing how companies operate internally and how they look at their customers, suppliers, partners, sales channels, and markets. In this context, it is up to the CIO to be a practical visionary: matching his or her organization’s tech-based capabilities to its current needs and to its future image of itself. He or she must also understand whether and how to enhance and extend the organization’s IT capabilities. And the most successful CIOs not only support the strategic direction of their organizations, but help set it.

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  1. Allan E. Alter, “The Role of the CIO: Setting a Strategic Course,” CIO Insight, April 2007: Last year’s very informative update of a long-running survey of top IT executives on CIOs and their position within their companies.
  2. Marianne Broadbent, The New CIO Leader: Setting the Agenda and Delivering Results (Harvard Business School Press, 2004): This tough-minded survey of how top IT executives succeed offers advice rooted in the realpolitik of the world of the corporate CIO.
  3. Nicholas G. Carr, Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage (Harvard Business School Press, 2004): The book-length version of Carr’s seminal, and controversial, article on IT and corporate strategy. A must-read for those interested in either subject.
  4. Rich Kauffeld, Johan Sauer, and Sara Bergson, “Partners at the Point of Sale,” s+b, Autumn 2007: Description of how shelf-centered collaboration among manufacturers and retailers provides a major new opportunity for the strategic CIO.
  5. National Basketball Association Web site: Even if you aren’t a basketball fan, it’s worth taking a look at the state of the art in Web site technology.
  6. For more articles on IT and technology, sign up for s+b’s RSS feed.
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