The CIO is Dead, Long Live the Chief Integration Officer

I’m the CEO & Founder of Cloudability. We’re based in cloudy Portland, Oregon. Eric asked me to take a few minutes to talk to you about a big shift we’re seeing in the role of the CIO.

The growth of the Internet of “Things” gives us some interesting data about how the CIO’s role is changing. And, for many companies, this is a change they want — and need — to encourage.

This Internet of “Things” is making us look at the world — the technology world at least — very differently. We are managing more and more devices that feel and look nothing like a computer or even a phone. Even the servers we use to run our businesses are increasingly anonymous, un-named, disposable, and virtual.

In fact, today, technology infrastructure is beginning to resemble a neural network. A network pummeled with bits of data coming at it from millions of devices — these “things” — that few of us ever imagined would be computerized or connected.

It’s this evolving interconnectedness that is forcing us to radically change how we manage the flow of data between all the things: objects as disparate as cars and traffic lights, lamps and power grids, paint chips and bridges, and so on.

We are going to have to rethink how conventional rules are applied in a world where so many things need to talk to each other without humans getting in the way. These challenges of interconnectedness are playing out in parallel inside the enterprise.

CIOs have an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide the leadership needed to guide their companies through these challenges; done right, the “I” in CIO becomes more about managing integration and less about managing information.

In one of his blog posts, Eric Norlin has called out the three defining characteristics of this network. He coined it “a bigger network of smaller things.” They will be:

(1) decentralized like the Internet,
(2)interconnected nodes in a dispersed central ecosystem, and
(3) fractal, where the structure looks similar as we zoom in or out.

We can already see what’s driving this: a wonderful mix of cloud computing, data and APIs that glue it all together.

But inside the enterprise, this is pure chaos. Rogue apps, devices and clouds are causing more and more “islands of information” to form. And while startups may thrive on chaos,enterprises struggle with it.

A natural response is to deal with the chaos by blocking anything that isn’t already part of their legacy system. Those of you who have been through the BYOD battle will have had a taste of this already.

Those enterprise who have got past this reflexive response are struggling with how to manage all of this new, distributed stuff, and how to integrate it with the existing stuff. And it’s this chaotic struggle that is holding back innovation and growth in enterprises.

Former Forrester Research president and research director Dave West may have said it best in an interview with Joe Stangarone on the MRC blog:

“Application integration problems are a top reason why businesses — and their enterprise architects and project managers — can’t deliver business innovation at the speed demanded by customers using all these application platforms.”

On one hand, you have IT whose natural inclination is to make the infrastructure as consistent, cost effective and solid as possible… which often translates into descriptions such slow, rigid and bureaucratic. On the other, you have divisions and employees — the nodes, as Eric would call them — who can seem to have tunnel vision at times, focused on only one thing: moving faster.

The CIO’s opportunity sits smack dab at the intersection of what’s best for the overall network and what’s best for the nodes.

I read an article recently that quoted Mark Thiele on this topic. In the article, Mark pointed out that integration is not only a technological opportunity, it’s also an organizational and business one. In the past, the roles of IT and business were separate. Two parts of the same network operating as islands.

At Cloudability, we get to see how the sausage making process of enterprise cloud adoption really works. We see a lot of political discussions on both sides — pro- and anti-cloud — about the wrong things. The people who spent their careers dedicated to building out world class data centers full of hardware that just a few years ago was everything the company needed, are finding it hard to embrace it when business units increasingly bypass them, ignore them, or unfairly compare internal services to external ones.

To go for Cloud services is often more expensive in cash terms right now, but the reality is, for that premium, you are getting less risk and more speed. So both sides need to focus on determining the right thing to do — not every project should go on the cloud, and not every project should go on the public cloud.

And the discussion should be, what are the numbers driving those choices? Not “let’s get rid of the Cloud” or “let’s get rid of internal IT.”

We’re already seeing greater integration of IT into business units as those on both sides begin to better understand each other’s roles and how they impact the overall growth of the organization. In fact, a recent IDC study showed 85 percent of respondents said IT has become a more valuable partner compared to three years ago. A bigger network of smaller things. And it’s that integration — of IT into business — that explains why the Chief Information Officer needs to become the Chief Integration Officer.

To the CIO, cloud computing and APIs are code words that describe a more fundamental shift from servers to services, from Capex to Opex. We feel it’s very similar to the move from mainframes to microcomputers. And it’s driven by the same forces: businesses want more speed, and more flexibility.

Today, you pay for everything up front. You own the hardware and the software, as well as the long term co-location, support and network contracts. And you employ staff to manage and maintain these systems. Well, not for much longer. You will end up with all of the above presented to you as a service: everything, from individual servers to whole applications will be provided as a service.

This has happened before. Over the last 30 years manufacturing industries have evolved from horizontally integrated supply chains — where you owned the factories, the source of raw materials, and even sometimes the cows that made the leather or the trees that made the rubber — to a vertically integrated supply chain based on a global network of suppliers who can make anything from rivets to large, complex components for you.

For example, look at how Toyota builds their cars. They buy components such as car seats from many different manufacturers. Orders are placed every day to a mix of vendors, based on demand. Each seat is identical except for the price, which varies according to the commercial terms in place: minimum order sizes, lead-times, annual commitments, etc.

It takes a lot of serious technology and people to stay on top of that and win.

Another example of this is the most recent US presidential election. It’s been widely reported that a critical advantage Obama had over Romney was technology. If we look at each implementation, they are wildly different.

Full disclosure: The Obama for America campaign was a customer of ours, so we have to be careful what we say here.

What is public is that the OFA team took a completely cloud based approach to the problem. This allowed them to spend almost all of their time focused on algorithms and data. And they were able to scale their successes very quickly when they had them.

The Romney campaign on the other hand took the same approach as every previous presidential campaign had taken. Their project ORCA needed a lot of effort just to get the infrastructure in place, before any code could be written or data crunched. Unfortunately, all this effort failed to pay off: on election day it quickly became overloaded and was unavailable for long stretches of time, just when it was needed most.

It’s generally accepted that this made a really big difference in Obama’s campaign. They had access to the data and could put people in the right places, whereas the Romney campaign didn’t and couldn’t.

I think this is the best and most public example to date about what will happen to you if you don’t get your ducks lined up on this integration.

With the proliferation of cloud applications and personal devices into the enterprise — not to mention existing data silos and platforms already inside the enterprise — organizations are generating more data than ever before. Data that must be corralled and managed. Data that must be tied directly into the company’s revenue and growth.

CIOs will need tools and systems that allow them to visualize and guide the growth of this neural network of things. Think of it as a compute supply chain, with the CIO managing the vertical integration of this chain. Once they can see all of the nodes, they can operate a more dynamic, flexible compute supply chain.

Because of this, we predict the CIO’s office is poised to become smaller but a lot more powerful. This will only happen if CIOs recognize that their role now is to drive integration, and no longer to provide the infrastructure for corralling information. Once they realize that, a world of new opportunity opens up for them and the people they serve, as well as their organization overall.

It’s a transformation whose time has come.

Viva la Chief Integration Officer!