6 things every CIO should know (or at least think about)

CIOs have a tough gig. They’re besieged by the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) boom; have to keep up with the latest cloud services; assess the value of the latest big data innovations; and deal with CEOs and subordinates who often think they could do the job better.

“Being the CIO of a tech company is easy, you support 60,000 users and 59,999 think they have your job,” EMC(s emc) executive vice president and COO  (and former CIO) Sanjay Mirchandani told attendees of the MIT CIO Symposium on Wednesday.

Here are the key takeaways from the conference.

1:  Learn to work well with others

Erik Brynjolfsson, director for Digital Business at MIT Sloan School of Management .

Erik Brynjolfsson, director for Digital Business at MIT Sloan School of Management .

It’s a lesson we were all supposed to learn in grade school but too often IT staff and the business units beyond are not fully in concert. That’s got to stop.

CIOs are tired of being “the department of naysayers” and the best ones embed themselves in the business cases of the company. And they have to be active participants in business talks, not order takers for technology.

In the traditional model with CIOs, it was “‘come in and tell me what your requirements are’ — we need to get out of that we need to have the courage to participate in the process,” said Michael Loo, SVP of Global IT for Avaya(s av).

2: Embrace big data but don’t be bedazzled.

Everyone is besotted by data. The more the better. But a common mistake is to confuse correlation with causation. Without the right background knowledge and statistical analysis tools you can still leap to the wrong conclusions about your data.

“There’s a shocking correlation between lung cancer and people who have ashtrays at home,” said Andrew Lo, professor of Finance at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, to illustrate that point.

Alex “Sandy” Pentland, professor at the MIT Media Lab concurred. “Big data is good for interpolation, when you know the field you’re working in but can be bad for extrapolation where you’re entering new areas,” Pentland said.

3: Stop managing by gut

Having  said that, there is still no substitute for data and metrics, properly applied and analyzed. Early in the war on cancer, medical research was too often hobbled by researchers’  tendency to let intuition drive their trials, said Dmitri Bertsimas, professor of operations research and statistics at MIT’s Sloan School. “We didn’t make a lot of progress,” he said.

“We need to change from opinions and hunches and go with facts and data,” agreed Erik Rynjolfsson, director of the MIT for Digital Business at the Sloan School.

4: Beware the HIPPO

Too often key business and tech strategic decisions are made by the HIPPO, aka the “Highest-paid Person with an Opinion.” That person may big-foot a process where discussion and pushback are a better way to go.

This is a term I first heard a few weeks ago at another industry event where Phil Swisher, chief innovation officer at Brown Brothers Harriman bemoaned this tendency of HIPPOs to dominate discussion. As The Boston Globe’s Scott Hirsner wrote:

Running experiments is much better than simply taking direction from a HIPPO, as politically difficult as that may be. “Hypothesis testing is better than hunches,” Swisher said.

5: Balance innovation with stability.

Remember, bleeding edge is bleeding for a reason.  Sometimes you do have to simply make sure the trains run on time, while hopefully also making those trains better, faster, cheaper over time.

Kazuhiro Gomi, president and CEO of NTT America, knows from experience. “Many of our customers rely on us to run their systems for them and running things smoothly is sometimes more important than being innovative,” he said.

6: Beware the CMO

There’s been a lot of talk that chief marketing officers will control more of the IT spend than CIOs going forward. Michael Relich, EVP and CIO of Guess Inc., said he was well aware of the study which also said “CMOs and CIOs should be best friends.” That makes sense, he added, because CMOs need data and to get data they need things like point-of-sale systems and e-commerce sites which are, by the way, all about IT.

So, will CMOs get more IT spend then CIOs? According to Relich: “Over my dead body.”

Note: This story was updated at 6:04 a.m. PDT May 24, 2013 to correct an attribution about CMOs getting more IT spend. Michael Relich of Guess Inc,. made the statement, not Avaya’s Michael Loo. I apologize for the error.