A CIO's Most Valuable Network

By Anne Zink

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Multi-modal biometrics for access control and mobile device security; agentless backup and recovery software; semantic search and analytics tools.

Analysts and the trades make it sound like these and other examples of emerging technology are must-have innovations. But do they work in the real world? Who are the best vendors? What’s the best way to integrate them into an IT environment? And where is the best place to get answers?

According to 50 CIOs recently interviewed by AZtech Strategies, the best place to get answers is to ask external peers.

Organizations tend to be very insular. Even marketing can fall into the trap of focusing on internal stakeholders. CIOs, in particular, often find themselves obsessively focused on their internal environments. In fact, 31 of the 50 CIOs we interviewed admitted they even catch themselves focusing on their department and losing sight of the larger corporate environment. Keeping up with innovation, trends and best practices is an impossible task without help.

But good help is hard fine. Only 15 of the CIOs we interviewed felt the analyst community delivers valuable insight. The balance of CIOs felt analysts were often biased and rarely as familiar with the technology as they had claimed. The trades tend to focus coverage on the big brands and their advertisers. Vendors can’t be expected to deliver unbiased information. The only place to look for honest, unbiased information is a network of peers.

But the importance of peer-to-peer networking extends beyond information sharing. The CIOs we interviewed share four benefits of peer-to-peer networking.

Safe Brainstorming – The adage "it’s lonely at the top" is as true for the CIO as it is for the CEO. The No. 1 challenge our CIOs face is not having enough time to think about their long-term strategy. They spend more than 80% of their time reacting to emergencies and corporate mandates. Add to that the fact CIOs spend the vast majority of their time focused inside the business, and the enormity of this challenge becomes clear. Networking with several peers helps them shift their focus outside and provides a safe environment to brainstorm.

Our CIOs tell us this safe environment is invaluable. They are able to think out loud about the possibilities before going public with their plan. Their peers are respected devil's advocates who are able to see weaknesses as well as missed opportunities. The external perspective of their peers also exposes them to different justification methodologies.

Getting Ahead of The Curve – Technology innovation happens at a frantic pace. No one can keep up with it all. But in a group of peers, invariably each has explored technology the others haven’t. Our CIOs shared they network with several peers across different industries in order to stay on top of new technology.

For example, a medical-research facility CIO is testing a semantic search and analytics tool to streamline the patent research process. His peer in banking is testing a high thru-put biometrics security tool. They share the benefits and lessons learned from their implementations.

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The other advantage our CIOs discussed was the ability to leverage the experience of different-sized companies. The CIOs of global corporations found it very enlightening to discuss how quickly smaller organizations are able to implement technology. As one CIO put it, “It is like a splash of cold water pointing how encumbered by our own bureaucracy we’ve become.”

In the reverse, the CIOs of mid-sized companies found discussions with their larger brethren forced them to plan for growth rather than solve only their immediate need.

Finding Experts – Although CIOs agreed that analysts, trades and vendors aren’t ideal sources of information, they admitted they occasionally run across a true thought leader. This is one of the rare times a CIO will attempt to pull his entire network together for a conference call or dinner meeting.

Personal Opportunities – Networking is the easiest way to find new career opportunities. Interestingly, this most obvious benefit of peer-to-peer networking is actually the least important, according to our CIOs.

It’s important to note, our CIOs are very careful not to reveal confidential information about their companies. Their conversations are less about specifics than they are best practices and industry trends that they can apply to their environment.

How do our CIOs do their peer-to–peer networking? Much to the chagrin of the peer-to-peer executive coaching industry, it’s rarely a formal process. The vast majority of our CIOs indicated they make a concerted effort to have lunch or a drink with peers a couple of times a quarter. They extend their networks by referral. In our earlier example, the banking CIO introduced the medical-research CIO to another peer in manufacturing.

Trade shows and industry events are another obvious opportunity to catch up with peers and extend networks.

Building and maintaining a peer network can be challenging. In a world where there is never enough time in the day, networking is one of the first things to fall off the list of to-do’s. But the CIOs who participated in our research were adamant. The time investment is well worth it.

One offered this encouraging advice, “At first, it feels like a waste of time. It takes a while to trust each other and build the rapport necessary. But if you keep at it, you suddenly find your peer network is as important to you as your buddies. Then it becomes easy and it grows naturally.” Building a peer-to-peer network is a critical activity to creating your own competitive advantage.

Anne Zink is founder of AZtech Strategies and go-to-market strategy consultant for the high-tech industry. AZtech develops multi-channel strategies based on customer expectations, channel input, and industry expertise and specializes in bringing emerging technologies and services to market.