'The Practical Visionary' is the title of a Strategy & Business article published in 2008.
It's a good article, though curiously it offers a case study of the trajectory of the US National Basketball Association's CIO after his arrival at the organisation in 1999. Which is fine, except that the article is making a particular point about the role of the CIO today. (Incidentally, I had to check whether 'The Power of TODAY' had become a business mantra to match The Power of Now in the realm of personal development.
A diversion on cows and vegans
Google gave me prodigious results, but I had no energy to plough through the first 50 pages in order to find out the real number that it would eventually drop down to. I suspect that I had no energy because I'm not a vegan. Vegans run marathons where we carnos jog mere furlongs. I learnt this from the magnificent Steve Pavlina, who was No. 2 on Google's results list for 'The Power of TODAY'. No. 1 was a page at Microsoft.com. I don't think I've ever intentionally visited that site (though my computer probably visits regularly, especially late at night). Anyway, Steve's got a whole thing going about trying to change habits by deciding to do something for 30 days rather than for ever. Like giving up smoking or arms dealing or child abuse. (He doesn't say the latter two; they're my interpolation your honour.) He gave up meat first of all and then, feeling the onset of scorn for lacto-ovo vegetarians - and rightly so, in my opinion, as they betray a palpable lack of rigour - he gave up eggs and dairy products. As he goes on to tell us:
Well, I lost seven pounds in the first week, mostly from going to the bathroom as all the accumulated dairy mucus was cleansed from my bowels (now I know why cows need four stomachs to properly digest this stuff).
Now I'm no farmer, but apart from suckling calves, I don't think I've ever seen a member of the cow family eating butter or cream or yoghourt or crème fraiche or any of that kind of mucus. They generate it, but tend not to ingest it. But perhaps Steve was 'avin' a laugh. No. No, he can't be. Because he goes on to tell us that,
Recently I competed in Toastmasters International's annual humor speech contest... I won at the club level but lost the area contest. Technically I came in last place because I was disqualified for running over the time limit. If you go even one second overtime in these contests, you lose automatically.
Enough. Believe me, he wasn't 'avin' a larf.
Back to the practical visionary. As Michael Farber and his co-authors tell us,
the model 21st-century CIO... 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...
In case it's not immediately obvious, that means that he or she is getting involved with planning the corporate strategy and helping to deliver it, rather than spending too much time worrying about whether people's PCs work or the intranet's secure. (Of course, those things still matter but, in this case, the guy had several years from 1999 onwards to fix them before moving on to strategy.)
They go on:
The strategic CIO has never been more important to the future of the organisation. 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... IT can be used to address problems of mounting complexity and to help an organisation 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.
Remember that Mike was CIO at The Economist Group, where he was doing exactly that - rolling up his sleeves and getting involved on the innovation front line.
Reading on, the article could have been written about Red Stripe:
The new CIO has an opportunity to change the way organisations 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.
Isn't that what we've just been saying? I'll keep quoting:
CIOs should study all the new technologies coming down the pipeline, whether or not they appear to be suited to the CIO's company or industry. CIOs need to take the time to think about their potential strategic value, not today, but five or 10 years from now. And they should talk with their peers within the company about how such technologies might fit in with strategies they too are seeing down the road. If CIOs aren't keeping these emerging technologies on their radar, it is at their peril: they can bet there's a competitor out there who is.
In all these respects, the six months that Mike and his team spent on Project Red Stripe seem to have been right on target. They were even talking explicitly about developing an idea that would reflect where the Group should be in 5-10 years in terms of its internet presence. And any one of the team could brief the Group on where and how to look to find out what's over the horizon.
So, we come back to the perception thing. Though I haven't witnessed this for myself first hand, my sense from the recent silence about Red Stripe at The Economist Group is that it's not seen as a success. Yet, in an odd way, I think the way it turned out could be one of the best outcomes.
For example, far from being surprised by the Financial Times's move into offering high priced (c. £2,000 p.a.) social networking sites for its executive readers in areas like Media & Technology, Property and the 'Luxury Sector' in February 2008, the Economist Group knew all about the pros and cons and had in-depth research on the idea at its fingertips.
Equally, from early 2008, changes at the economist.com website inevitably began to reflect some of the possibilities previously discussed by the Red Stripe team and rejected as 'too incremental'. Now, of course, some of these might have happened anyway, but the team regularly invited Economist executives into their room to share their thoughts, which were also shared more widely on the team's blog. And Mike and other members of the team that have stayed with the company are available to discuss their inside knowledge of everything from starting a predictions market to 'intelligent product placement' to an open-authoring wiki. [Interestingly, Mark Frazier at OpenWorld contacted me to ask if the team ever discussed setting up 'action-oriented wikis around the opportunities/strategies discussed by the Red Stripe team — for public allies/co-creators to move them forward?'. As far as I know, they didn't do quite that, but the data was all stored and made available via Central Desktop for exactly that purpose.]
[You can see an interview with Mike about his role as CIO here. ]
If you give smart employees the opportunity of a lifetime, how do you hang on to them once the excitement's over? [For once, there's an answer to this one. Help them to move on, if that's what they need to do. Stay in touch. Maybe they'll come back even more fully fledged.]
No consumas lacteos - 'equality'