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MIT Sloan CIO Symposium takes on mobile, data, clouds

This year's symposium highlights the challenges of dealing with legacy while embracing new computing approaches.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Most discussions about where computing is and where it's going end up touching on three big themes: mobility, big data, and cloud computing. Yesterday's MIT Sloan CIO Symposium was no exception, whether those precise terms were used or not.

Perhaps the most striking example of just how rapidly mobile devices are forcing IT organizations to adapt came from Scott Griffith, the CEO of Zipcar, who said that "60 percent of interactions are now through an Android or an iPhone." He also noted that essentially BlackBerry's entire share had shifted to Android over a period of about two and a half years.

Griffith also emphasized the importance of data mining to his company. As with airlines, Zipcar is largely a fixed-cost business in the short term; it therefore makes sense to provide incentives for people to use vehicles at times of low demand. Data mining is the basis for a wide range of price promotions; it's also used for marketing programs such as referrals.

The symposium also provided examples of just how far "Bring Your Own Device" (BYOD) has progressed within some organizations. For example, Frank Modruson, CIO of Accenture, said that roughly 70 percent of the mobile devices at his company are employee purchased. They "put security down on the device" but they provide no support. (They also offer the option of a standard IT-supported device for those who want one.) As large and very distributed IT services organization, Accenture is typical of the sort of company I see moving to BYOD most aggressively.

Scott Griffith, CEO Zipcar, discussed how IT has been essential to scale and leverage his company's business. Gordon Haff

Perhaps the biggest theme of the day, however, was delivering business innovation through information technology.

Part of this involves simply not doing certain things and moving them to a public cloud provider of some sort. Steven John, the CIO of Workday, said that IT organizations should concentrate on: "What are the things that others can't do? What are the things that only we can do? Focus on business technology knowledge." John went on to observe that public cloud computing provided a certain degree of order through the constraints it places, whereas, historically, customization has caused many IT failures.

It's not always possible to move to new IT structures overnight though. An academic panel moderated by Jason Pontin, the editor in chief of Technology Review, and consisting of Prof. Anant Agarwal, director MIT CSAIL; Prof. Erik Brynjolfsson, MIT Sloan; and Joichi Ito, director of MIT Media Lab, discussed ways to accelerate productivity and change. Advice included making a lot of small bets and shifting towards more data-driven and distributed decision making. The overall consensus was, in the words of Ito "You don't need to spend money any longer. Let people try everything."

However, the CIO panel that followed brought a somewhat different perspective. For example, Thomas Sanzone, SVP of Booz Allen Hamilton, asked "Why are we embarrassed by legacy? What if we have a legacy of success?" He went on to note that the challenge of anything legacy is that the cost of maintenance is far smaller than the cost of development. I've heard similar sentiments from many CIOs. Legacy may be a dirty word but it often applies to systems that have been successfully running the business for many years. The challenge is often not so much how to get rid of these legacy systems but how to introduce innovation while dealing with the legacies in whatever way is appropriate.

Accenture's Modruson also observed that IT shouldn't be just about making small bets and failing fast. He said that "If you're a CIO, you want to try new things and not spend much money but if there are big returns to be had with big investments, we'll do those too." He went on to note that planning or lack of planning really depends on what you're doing. "If you're building a highway, it's kind of important to plan."

Former IBMer Irving Wladawsky-Berger suggested to me that some of this apparent disconnect between the academic view and the CIO view really comes down to platforms vs. applications. CIOs are responsible for creating a solid IT infrastructure on which the business can be run and on which innovation can happen. I think, at some level, the panelists who were more focused on the innovation side of the equation were taking the availability of robust infrastructure as something of a given (and, to be sure, perhaps largely ignoring the reality of legacy systems.)

This is the balancing act that we see time and time again with cloud computing. One one side of the scale is the speed, the agility, the low friction of "the cloud" -- whatever the precise form it takes. On the other side are the very real concerns of, not just IT organizations, but the business -- reducing risk, protecting data, and providing reliable service.