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


The Practical Visionary

In doing so, they will bring back one of the almost-forgotten aspects of the personal computer revolution of the 1980s: It made work more engaging by making people more powerful. That shift turned out to have enormous strategic value. Word processors allowed people to pull their thoughts together, revise, and bring in new ideas iteratively, without having to retype each time. Electronic spreadsheets spawned thousands of “what if” scenarios that made business options clearer and eliminated the need for painstaking calculations conducted on paper by roomfuls of clerical staff. Databases provided the means to store and analyze huge amounts of data, providing insight into the supply chain, customers, and more at an unprecedented level of detail. E-mail made it possible to connect with many more people quickly. And the presentation program, though much derided, has been a vital tool for helping people convene teams and organize ideas. The resulting boom in productivity in the developed world has yet to slacken. Another result was an increase in scope: Organizations could do much more, with much less, than they could in the past. Without IT, as it soon came to be called, globalization would not be possible.

But by the mid-1990s, that sense of liberation had turned to a sense of being shackled by the tools themselves. E-mail became a source of spam and irrelevancies, and took more and more time to tend. Word-processing software led to unnecessary revisions and overwritten documents. PowerPoint was actually banned at some companies, like Sun Microsystems Inc. And massive data banks drowned companies in pointless details that no one analyzed. Much of the strategic value of the information revolution was lost in the fragmented approaches of many implementations, which rarely adapted by learning from the ways people preferred to use technology. Even the Internet, despite its vast appeal, became more of a chore than a responsibility for many organizations. Web sites had to be organized, architected, marshaled, and managed. All of this took place during the frenzied buildup of the dot-com bubble, when organizations had to make big, fast bets or face losing out to quicker competitors.

More troubling, many global organizations have spent tens of millions of dollars on large-scale IT projects, many of which have failed to provide the business value they were intended to yield. Projects are often late and over budget due to a combination of poor management by the IT organization, failure to obsessively focus on the sources of value, and poor engagement by the business.

The new CIO has an opportunity to change the way organizations adopt and use technology. Moreover, the time for changing it has never been better. The range of Web 2.0 technologies — social networking software, video-sharing sites, multi-participant simulated environments, and creative exchanges — has sparked a level of excitement not seen since the early days of the Internet. A new generation that has never lived without computers and pervasive telecommunications is entering the workforce with unprecedented levels of technological sophistication and expectations of free access and universal mobility. Once again, we have a multiplicity of options, and an opportunity for the whole enterprise to think more strategically about its information choices and priorities, to build the capabilities needed to meet strategic goals, and to learn better practices every step along the way.

Competing Demands
CIOs at large enterprises — whether commercial, governmental, or nonprofit — typically split their time be­tween business/strategy concerns and technological/operational concerns. On the one hand, whether or not most CIOs have a seat at the executive table, they look to drive the growth and profitability of their company (or, in the case of nonprofits, achieve the mission; or, in the case of government organizations, support increasingly complex missions and programs), just like every other executive.

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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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