CIOs Headed for Extinction

are dinosaurs: out of place in the world that is taking shape, and headed for mass extinction.

For most people, the phrase "mass extinction" evokes images of an asteroid slamming into the Earth 65 million years ago, forever altering the course of life on the planet.

The instantaneous climate change that resulted wiped out the dinosaurs, who found themselves designed for conditions that suddenly no longer existed. They were not so much guilty of bad management as they were victims of a cosmological crapshoot. Paleontologist David Raup memorably described the fate of the big reptiles as "bad luck, not bad genes."

The mass extinction that IT professionals should be worried about will very nearly wipe out CIOs as we know them. You can be certain that it will happen; in fact, the events are already in motion. I predict that when the dust clears, 60% of the CIOs on the planet will not have survived to see the next era.

The asteroid has already hit. It is the macroeconomic meltdown now besetting the world's markets. As with the dinosaurs, there is no escape for most CIOs. They are doomed, though like the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period, they may not know it yet. But man, the species from which CIOs are drawn, differs from dinosaurs in many ways, not the least of which is man's ability to predict and assess circumstances and in some cases to even willfully adapt.

Scientists tell us that animals avoid extinction in two ways. First, they adopt new behaviors that bestow competitive advantage in a changed environment. Second, they compete among their own kind for the affections of the opposite sex. CIOs certainly will need to find new competitive advantages in their new environment as they compete among their own kind for the affections of companies willing to hire them.

What will provide competitive advantage?

The skills needed in the new era were nicely summarized by Byron Reeves, a professor of communication at Stanford University, in a May 12 interview in Computerworld. Reeves said that what's needed is distributed decision-making, rapid response, the use of ad hoc teams, and leadership through collaboration rather than authority.

How do you or your CIO rate on these dimensions?

And how is your CIO responding to the current crisis?

If he's telling the troops to hunker down for the rough ride ahead, he's leading you straight to the tar pits. If he views the economic downturn as a huge opportunity, he just might find himself still standing in a few years.

One CIO I predict will survive is the financial services chief who told me he sees the soft economy as the "next Y2k." While everyone else is panicking, his organization is fine-tuning its IT infrastructure to generate competitive advantage.

Another good bet is the CIO in the oil patch who told me that "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste." What he sees in the meltdown is an opportunity for substantive change, since corporate politics-as-usual will be unable to survive the extreme pressure that's building.

Another good bit of advice I heard was from a senior IT leader in the Department of Defense who said that what a CIO does is "extract strategic value from IT -- that is the only real function of a CIO."

The fact is that the CIOs who are emulating the dinosaurs, uncomprehendingly watching as the sun is blotted out and the vegetation withers, are just fossils waiting to happen.

The successful ones, embracing changes they can't forestall, will be more jazzed than ever about the next 12 to 18 months and the substantive impact that they, as IT leaders, will have on their organizations.

Thornton A. May is a longtime industry observer, management consultant and commentator. You can contact him at thorntonamay@aol.com.

See more by Thornton A. May.

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