Fear Factor, C-suite edition

Given all the revelations about corporate and personal data ending up where it should not be — and CEOs getting fired over it — it’s no wonder that the anxiety level in the executive suite has ratcheted up in the past year. You need look no further than the Ebay(s ebay) snafu disclosed Wednesday for the latest example.

But CIOs and their CEO bosses are better off forging ahead with tech plans rather than retrenching, according to speakers at the MIT CIO Symposium on Wednesday morning.

“I was always a hope versus fear guy…but now it’s fear versus fear,” said  Narinder Singh, chief strategy officer for Appirio, a cloud-focused systems integrator. “It’s now fear of disruption versus fear that we can’t screw something up because I don’t want to get fired.”

Rock, meet hard place

Not to add fuel to the fire, but being frozen between two scary choices is not an option. Technology can both defend against data breaches and be the differentiator that drives new business, according to the speakers. There will always be risk in moving, but there may be greater risk in staying still.

“You need to appropriately measure risk versus over-respond to risk,” Singh said

Mark Holst-Knudsen, who was promoted to president of ThomasNet a few months ago, is with a company that knows disruption. It used to publish thick green encyclopedic directories used by engineers and other buyers of technical gear to find components they needed. It printed money, at least until the 1990s when web search came along. Now that business has moved online and ThomasNet has to focus on providing value above and beyond what engineers can get from Google(s goog) searches. That means providing deeper, more focused schematics, engineering drawings and specs that can be pumped out and reused in various customer ERP and CAD systems.

Anonymous Guy Fawkes mask

Action is better than no action

C-level execs need to act and need to be able to survive mistakes when they do so. Holst-Knudsen said his biggest mistake to date was approving the building of some software when the company should have just bought it. It was a valuable, if painful, lesson learned.

“You shouldn’t build anything that’s available off the shelf that’s not the source of competitive advantage,” he noted. For ThomasNet, that advantage lies partly in its system for managing product and CAD information, which enables it to build product catalogs with specifications that can then be transmitted to distributors with different ERP requirements.

Stephen Neff, enterprise CTO of Fidelity Investments, said the key for tech leaders is to embrace the challenge of disruption and let it drive them in a positive way.

“I think 100,000 companies have launched on Amazon Web Services. There are new competitors to all of us, including in financial services…there’s an incredible amount of opportunity and you can’t run a business out of fear,” Neff said.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user HomeArt.