Are You Obsolete?

How to stay relevant in the world of Web 2.0, Wii and other wonders.

Vince Kellen has had a successful IT career. Currently CIO at DePaul University, he is also an international speaker on customer relationship management and the Internet. He has written four books on database technology and is completing a Ph.D. in computer science at DePaul.

But he's pretty proud of another recent accomplishment: achieving a skill level of 2325 in Wii tennis.

It's not all about showing off for his two kids, both under the age of 12, one of whom can handily beat him in Wii baseball or boxing. He also likes to observe how the software adjusts as the player's skill level improves, particularly when it comes to the handheld remote, which is programmed to be sensitive to physical gestures. "It's gone to the next level of interactivity." Kellen says of the Nintendo system. "The player becomes highly skillful at manipulating the interface."

This capability, he says, may not be applicable to the corporate development environment today, but it could be someday. And Kellen's curiosity about his kids' favorite video game system is a good example of the mind-set IT managers need to develop as they face what some say is one of the biggest challenges of the profession today: staying relevant as consumer-rooted and community-based Web 2.0 technologies infiltrate the corporate world at the grass-roots level and threaten to render the control-and-command style of IT management obsolete.

According to a growing chorus of IT leaders, consultants and bloggers, IT needs to shift into a new role. It should continue its traditional responsibilities, such as governance, security and control of costs and return on investment. But it should loosen control over parts of the business intent on improving productivity through the use of downloadable rich Internet applications, social networking, collaboration tools and other Web 2.0 technologies.

Anthony Bradley, an analyst at Gartner, foresees "a significant shift in power that IT ignores at its own peril." With free Internet applications, Web platforms and social software, "the consumer side of the world is driving most technology advancement, not enterprise IT," he says.

There's still a question of how innovations like social networks, RSS, microblogs, wikis and mashups will translate into enterprise profits, but few doubt that they need to be explored, and not just by IT.

"Users have stormed the gates of IT," says Josh Holbrook, program manager at Yankee Group Research in Boston. "IT will catch on to corporate-sponsored blogs, wikis and social networks, but the question remains whether they will catch on in time, or will the technology they adopt will be antiquated by the time it's implemented?"

That's why IT leaders like Jeff Kuhns are discussing how to balance control with user-inspired innovation. "The companies that figure out how to do this will not only have happier, more productive employees, but the IT department will be free to focus on forward-thinking projects that could help drive revenue and innovation," the senior director of IT at Pennsylvania State University wrote on his blog recently.

Avoiding Extinction

The job of maintaining the perception of relevance - and possibly avoiding extinction - may require IT managers to take a close look at their current management styles and make some tweaks, especially if they've been working in IT for a while. "The main issue for CIOs is that they're just plumb unaware [of consumer technology developments] or pretend it's not there," Kellen says, adding that he makes a point of working and interacting with consumer electronics.

He cites Apple's iPhone as an example. Because it's optimized for short videos, it may be useful for training or disseminating information to sales teams. Kellen's antennae are also up on text messaging, which has become a necessity for basic social interaction among college students who will soon enter the workforce. "I'm not sure what it means yet, but they're used to engaging in textual expression using a language that's not broadly accessible and through which they project their personalities," he says.

Kellen is still a tad tentative about the concept of Enterprise 2.0 - a term used to describe the vision of open, decentralized, community-driven technology platforms. "The Web 2.0 phenomenon is just a tiny bit more smoke than fire," he says, because no one has figured out yet the direct relationship between the unstructured data it produces and increased corporate competitiveness.

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