Thursday, December 31, 2009


Last week a journalist asked for my comments about New Year’s resolutions for CIOs. “Could you give me a few ideas,” she wrote. I sent her three, which I’ll unpack for your holiday reading pleasure.

Resolution #1: Ponder Paul Samuelson’s: “Good questions outrank easy answers.”
[1] We would do well spending time with the right questions in the coming year. One I recommend wrestling with: how are you shaking up the business, inspiring your peers to imagine in new ways, and empowering your customers (or beneficiaries)? This may prove the better question than asking how we can better align with our business peers—a good question to ask anew, but a rear-view mirror, to borrow a Tom Peters’ phrase. Times of crisis are an invitation to experiment, harvest what works before the turnaround, and have the humility to recognize the answers that come from places we least expect.[2]

Resolution #2: Do not allow a retreat to lights-on computing take the IT agenda from moving missions. In nonprofits we've seen IT budgets and staff slashed to operations-only cost levels. That means little to no IT time and budget will be spent on technology that impacts field workers and beneficiaries. That’s cutting the wrong things. We end up spending a greater percentage of the technology budget pie on commodity items like email and desktop computing. We need to get out of the infrastructure business and redeploy more resources to get into the mission-moving business

Resolution #3: Employees increasingly want to help save the world; help make the connections to do so. Over the past five years we've seen an explosion of interest in colleges, business schools and the new generation of employees, in business for social good. It’s a fundamental shift from good corporate citizenship, and the desire to give back, to an expectation that our businesses can make a difference in the big global issues like poverty. This isn't about rich versus poor, as a “we versus them;” this is about us –to paraphrase John Green
[4] That means more partnering among corporations, nonprofits and people in emerging countries. It’s a question—to come full circle—about what are we doing together?

[1] Echoing Rilke’s “Learn to love the questions,” economist Paul Samuelson died at his home at Belmont, Massachusetts on December 13. He was 94. As a fellow collector of quotes aptly said, “… Samuelson was brilliant, insightful, and witty. He kept thinking about the economy, and writing articles, up until two weeks ago. He will be missed.” (See G. Armour Van Horn’s collection at )
[2] As Jim Collins notes, when there is rapid change and uncertainty, smart organizations vary like mad. See Jim Collins, Built to Last, Harper Collins, 1995, pp. 146-47. I want to know what's the portfolio of experiments the CIO is sponsoring? No experiments; no innovation. So to apply the Tom Peters’ phrase above, business alignment has been overrated in that it’s looking back on the organization that is rather than on what it can be.
[3] For nonprofits, this means more radical partnering in 2010, sharing services, and trusting others to do the basics. We need to standardize and share business processes and applications; invest the savings in applications that deliver programs, and innovate with those app’s that beneficiaries can use directly. Something to add to our agenda in 2010: in addition to things that run the operation, and build the business, we need a portfolio of prototypes from which we can harvest. To put more pointedly: build versus run is not enough for IT. We need, build, run, and experiment to innovate, which means more pilots and prototypes, even from outside our organization
[4] See John Green’s video response to Shawn Ahmed and the “Uncultured Project,” here:
“[Nonprofit advertisements are] making you think that the poor are in some ways fundamentally different from us; that they’re like a ‘them.” So in our minds it becomes this formulation: we should help them. But it’s not a ‘them’ problem; it’s an ‘us’ problem. We need to help us.”