By Gerry Blackwell
Reading through the first ten years of CIO Canada, one is reminded of the old Chinese curse, ‘ May you live in interesting times,’ We have lived in fascinating times.
The period since our inaugural issue in July 1993 neatly encompasses the rise of the Internet as a ubiquitous and all-pervasive business medium. And it takes in the now almost forgotten melodrama of Y2K.
Those ten years have also seen the ebb and flow of countless new technologies, architectures, fads, management concepts. Remember when client-server was a buzzword on every IT person’s lips, when data warehousing was a front-of-mind issue, when the pros and cons of thin clients were hotly debated?
Some came and went leaving nary a ripple, others simply entered the mainstream and became part of our daily lives. Some have stayed on the fringes for years. Herewith, a highly selective and thematic walk down CIO Canada’s very own Memory Lane.
We start with e-commerce because that’s where the magazine started. The cover stories in the premier issue, written by Richard Adhikari, were all about what was then still spelled out in full: electronic commerce. And if you think we’re putting the cart before the horse here, that the Internet should come first, think again.
What Adhikari was talking about then was not Internet e-commerce but electronic data interchange (EDI), based on direct or private network connections between big vendors and customers or big manufacturers and their suppliers. It’s still an important part of many businesses, of course, but it’s not what we generally mean by the term today. E-commerce then wasn’t so much about extending markets or personalizing as it was about improving process efficiency.
When we came back to e-commerce almost two years later in the February 1995 issue, it was still mainly about EDI. We profiled three Canadian companies that had allegedly had success with it.
The Internet and the prospect of Internet e-commerce did raise its head about this time. A Trendlines article in that same issue reported a survey of CIOs on their “most popular” Internet applications. “Sales and marketing” and “purchasing products and services” ranked tenth and eleventh of 12. In the very next issue, we reported that Wells Fargo in the U.S. had begun processing credit card payments on the Net for Virtual Vineyards, a pioneering wine e-tailer.
Internet e-commerce had begun
By October 1996 when e-commerce next made it into the feature section, it was now all about the Internet. “The Web Goes Retail”, we trumpeted in an article by David Menzies that talked about virtual malls and other pioneering concepts and efforts.
After that, e-commerce became a staple in the magazine, with a special issue devoted to it in March 1999. For a long time, though, it continued to be discussed as a disruptive factor, with skepticism about its value and uncertainty about how to do it well. A wry July 2000 feature was entitled “Ten Ways to Fail at E-commerce.”
Today, a great number of CIO Canada articles relate at least peripherally to doing business on the Internet.
The upheaval surrounding Y2K fairly defines the notion of “interesting times.” It first appears in the magazine – not yet familiarized as ‘Y2K’ – in May 1996. In a small item in Trendlines, Paul Raymond, director of consulting services at CGI, warns, “Don’t wait till 1999.” It was a warning that would be repeated often.
A few months later, two September Trendlines articles took up the theme again. One marveled that “three or four” companies had actually begun Y2K initiatives. The other, headlined “Tick, Tick, Tick,” warned that “the dance cards of service providers that offer solutions to this vexing problem are quickly filling up.” At this point, of course, we didn’t realize that Y2K would spawn a mini-industry and a welter of new “service providers.”
The Millennium bug made it into CIO Canada’s feature section for the first time in April 1997. One article urged CIOs to apprise CEOs of what was coming and beg for additional resources to deal with it. In the other, Deloitte & Touche partner Robert G. Parker laid out a detailed a plan for untangling the Y2K knot.
A column by Derek Slater in the January 1998 issue, “Y2K – Darwinism for IS?”, predicted – correctly, we think – that IS could come out the other side stronger and more firmly embedded in the business. And a July feature, “Sweetening the Bitter Y2K Pill,” by consultants Bob Fabian and Bob Hopkins, noted that solving the Y2K problem would have “significant spin-off benefits.”
But a feature in December that year introduced a disturbing new notion: that even if you had taken all prudent Y2K precautions yourself, you could still be brought low by the failures of others – suppliers, customers, government – to do the same. And then the March 1999 issue introduced the specter of law suits arising from Y2K failures, a concern raised again in May.
A June 1999 feature by Grant Buckler talked about fears that Y2K failures might bring the power grid down. The article concluded – rightly of course – that power-out scenarios were extremely unlikely, but it reflected the prevailing zeitgeist.
A Trendlines piece in that same issue also echoed growing cynicism about Y2K. It itemized various Y2K cons and scams. A few months later, we ran a tongue-in-cheek item on a children’s comic strip revolving around Y2K. It had become something we could poke fun at. Finally, the December 1999 issue closed with a very rational column by Chuck Belford on “Cleaning Up After Y2K.”
So ended an epic, not with a bang but a sigh – of relief.
The silenced buzz
Client-server: The first few years of CIO Canada are full of the client-server revolution, the transition from big centralized mainframes and ‘green screens’, to distributed servers connecting PCs – clients – over local and wide area networks.
Even in those early days, though, the magazine took the mickey out of the hype. A whimsical February/March 1994 Trendlines article titled “I’ve Got The Client/Server Blues,” asked, “Is client/server a technology, an architecture, a methodology? Or is it a religion?” To this day, we’re still not sure – but who cares anymore.
No matter if they were irked by the mega-hype, CIOs still had to deal with the reality, so a feature in the September issue that year on “Surviving A Client/Server Project” offered “Seven Management Principles” for succeeding. Our favourite: “Don’t sell the project based on immediate cost savings.” No kidding.
In 1995, client-server was still a vexing and current issue. We talked about the problems of ensuring that client-server components be interoperable (huh?), and reported in May that “Client/Server Adoption Continues, Despite Pitfalls.” But after 1996, when we published case studies of a couple of successful client-server-related projects, the talk dies down. Client-server all but disappears as a point of discussion.
Until a July 2002 article by Peter Smith, regional vice president for PeopleSoft Canada Global Services, arguing that “the client/server architecture that ushered in the ERP industry is about to be left behind for good.” To be replaced by – Internet-based enterprise software.
ERP: Speaking of ERP, it’s a prime – and more recent – example of a technology moving into the mainstream and out of the limelight. In CIO Canada, ERP’s heyday lasted from about 1999 to 2002. That first year, we ran two big features in the May issue, “Scaling the ERP Mountain,” about the travails of implementing ERP, and “And Now A Word For Our Sponsor,” which coached CIOs on how to coach executive sponsors of ERP projects.
The main theme of our coverage was often ERP headaches, and their seeming inevitability. According to an October 2000 feature, “Integrating ERP with e-commerce applications can be the stuff of nightmares for the CIO.” A May 2001 article by managing editor David Carey, entitled “Surviving The ERP Journey”, leads with this blunt assessment: “Very few things in the IT world have the potential to fail so spectacularly as Enterprise Resource Planning.”
ERP hasn’t gone away, of course. It’s merely evolving. In fact only last month we examined the next phase of ERP – a more outwardly focussed and collaborative form of the technology – which Gartner calls ERP II. We’ll let you know how that turns out in our Twentieth Anniversary issue.
Thin client: The thin client – no, not a skinny customer – was supposed to solve some of the woes of client-server. It’s a hard-driveless PC that accesses PC applications on a networked server.
We first mentioned it in a story in August 1998 headlined “PC Wars: Battle For The Corporate Desktop.” It didn’t go away entirely after that. A November 2001 item touted the dubious benefits again and predicted unit sales would reach 8.7 million by 2005. Versus ten trillion PCs?
CRM: CRM is a curious case. We are still very much in the CRM era – in fact, it has really only loomed large since the turn of the millennium. But it first showed its face in CIO Canada back in March 1995 in a prescient feature by Grant Buckler entitled “Consuming Desires”. The term CRM doesn’t appear – it may not have been coined yet – but CRM is what the article was about. It focused on the retail sector and made the case that “knowing what the customer wants, even before he wants it” is “the name of the game,” and that IT systems could help retailers achieve this knowledge. Yep, that’s CRM.
With Y2K behind us, and the concept of customer relationship management by now much more clearly defined, we returned to CRM with cautious enthusiasm in 2000, often in the context of e-commerce. It resurfaced, for example, in an April 2000 article about eCRM – collecting e-customer data online.
In May of that year, associate editor Linda Stuart asked, “Is CRM a High Priority?” The answer was apparently, ‘No, but it should be.’ At the same time, we were certainly aware of a level of frustration about the hype surrounding CRM. Another feature in the June 2000 issue began, “CRM often stands for ‘clear as mud’ for companies attempting to get beyond vendor hype to clear, actionable customer strategies.”
CRM has continued to be a staple in the magazine right up to recent issues, with articles about why it’s important, how to implement it properly and how to organize around it.
As always, CIO Canada aims to inject a strong note of realism into the discussion. A November 2002 article by consultant David Foote began, “Here’s a riddle: what costs US$100 million and doesn’t work 70 per cent of the time? Answer: a customer relationship management system.” Mind you, that article goes on to make the point that CRM failures are typically not the fault of the technology, and that despite the problems, CRM remains vitally important.
As recently as January of this year, Grant Buckler could write, “For all its promise, the record on customer relationship management is not encouraging.” That and other articles in the issue again stress the importance of CRM and show why it requires careful planning and cautious implementation to succeed.
Knowledge Management: Some technologies never gain the CIO mind share they perhaps deserve – despite our best efforts. We first looked at knowledge management (KM) way back in December 1996, in an article written by Charnel Havens, chief knowledge officer at EDS. “With a huge portion of a company’s worth residing in the knowledge of its employees, the time has come to get the most out of that valuable corporate resource…”
Seven years later, though, most companies still haven’t done much about it. The problem may be that success with KM requires a commitment from knowledge workers to share knowledge – a paradigm shift that goes against human nature.
We went back to KM again in February 1997 with an article by Bruno Kiercszak titled “Turning Information Into Knowledge.” A Trendlines piece later that year claimed KM was “finally coming of age,” though this may have been wishful thinking.
Xerox executive Scott Frame contributed an article to the April 1998 issue which argued idealistically that “rather than focusing on archiving knowledge, companies should set their sights on fostering a working and learning environment that nurtures the continuous creation, use and re-use of knowledge.” Hallelujah!
In a July 1999 editorial rant entitled “Dumb and Dumber”, managing editor David Carey voiced the frustrations of those who did “get” KM. “When it comes to knowledge management,” he asked, “why do our executives appear to have graduated at the bottom of their class from the Jim Carrey School of Business?”
We have returned to the subject year after year, but KM still remains on the periphery. As recently as May of last year, a Trendlines piece again extolled the virtues of the concepts and technologies, while despairing of their ever really taking hold. The article quotes Doug McCuaig, vice-president of e-business services at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, restating the essential problem.
“Employees think of knowledge as a threat – it’s what makes them valuable and they don’t want to share it.”
Etc.: We’ve only scratched the surface, of course. Why not talk about data warehousing, data marts, data mining? Or wireless, or IP telephony? Or any of dozens of other current and faded technologies du jour? Same reason we don’t cover them all in the magazine all the time: not enough room. And same reason CIOs’ heads are full to bursting: there’s just too much out there to take in.
What’s more, CIO Canada has all along been focussed on managing technology, rather than on the nuts and bolts of technology itself – and we haven’t even touched on that.
The magazine has gone back again and again to the key management issues – and will continue to do so. How do you measure benefits and justify the gazillions spent on IT? How do you negotiate better deals with vendors? How do you keep hackers from stealing data and wrecking systems? How do you plan for disaster? How do you keep on the right side of the big boss and get your bit-heads to communicate better with the business lines? What are the pros and cons and ins and outs of outsourcing, insourcing, right sourcing. On and on it goes.
And we’ll continue to think about and talk about the big existential questions too. Why are we here? What does it mean to be a CIO? Author and consultant Don Tapscott may have stated it as well, in our inaugural issue, as it has ever been stated.
“The title Chief Information Officer,” he wrote, “has become accepted as a title for the person responsible for aligning the IT strategy of the organization with overall corporate goals. Whether the official title is CIO, VP MIS or Chief Technology Officer, the intent is the same: use IT as a competitive tool.”
Still, the CIO’s job keeps changing and evolving, so we’ll keep playing it back to you. And creating the itinerary for some future trip down Memory Lane.
Gerry Blackwell is a freelance writer specializing in information technology and IT management. A longtime contributor to CIO Canada, he is based in London, Ont.