Informal Education

So senior and so experienced. Yet so stale. Are you well versed only in technologies that are at least 10 years old? Do you spend all your time on ROI, depreciation and staff issues, only to find that your tech skills are toast? It's tough for senior managers to stay current on technology, which will always be a moving target. Could you accurately describe Wi-Fi, SOAP, P3P or LDAP to a member of your tech team? The task can be overwhelming. For instance, a CIO pulled me out of a meeting two years ago and urgently whispered, "What in the world is XML?"

To stay on top, senior IT people must use a variety of tools and practices to make sense of the ever-changing technology landscape and evolving management philosophies and business practices. There might not be time for formal classes, but the CIOs I've talked with prefer the following inexpensive yet effective methods of updating their knowledge:

- See what your peers say. There's no substitute for talking with colleagues regularly. Try to do this in person. Off-line communication is helpful, but it's no substitute for in-person advice from trusted friends. Ask about business DSL installations and watch your colleagues roll their eyes because they can't get carriers to respond to service orders; ask about VPNs and see how others are using them. Join an organized group of IT leaders either within or outside your company's industry.

- Get out of your office and meet new people. When you attend conferences, make the rounds at every cocktail party and networking opportunity. You may make lifetime friends and learn about technologies and practices that may not seem important now, but could be critical next year.

- Chat. Talk with others via e-mail or online communities. The answers to your questions may come from someone in a different industry.

- Subscribe to online news services. We all get electronic newsletters that clog our in-boxes. But savvy IT practitioners define preferences and ask for relevant content through e-mail. Look for such services from business publications.

- Take business unit managers out to lunch. For the price of a cheeseburger and a Coke, you can reap valuable intelligence about what's going on in key parts of your company. Business unit managers will also be happy to spill the beans on what technologies your company's competitors are using.

- Use research services you've already paid for. If you've coughed up thousands of dollars for subscriptions to research services, don't let those reports languish in your SUV's trunk. Read them, right in the office.

- Use vendors as advisers. Technology companies' sales and marketing people have to really understand core technologies before they can sell them. Ask these experts how the technologies work, who else has implemented them and what's coming in two or three years.

- Shop the competition. Some CEOs think that the coolest technologies are those in use at other companies. Call up their call centers, check out their Web sites or shop in their stores. See for yourself what your CEO might have read about in an airline magazine.

- Get involved locally. Many cities have groups of senior IT executives whose members share experiences and create ideas.

- Read. Many senior people read only business publications. Borrow a direct report's magazine and see what you've been missing.

- Create the future. Don't like the technologies you see? Define your destiny by forming a new interest group of cross-industry peers that can press vendors with what users really need.

Staying ahead on technology is a battle that's never won. It means looking not to next year, but three years out. You'll be able to do that only if you constantly ask questions, get out of your office and talk to the change agents who are making a difference.

CATHY HOTKA manages the CIO Council for the National Retail Federation in Washington, and reads technical magazines for fun. She can be reached at hotkac@nrf.com.

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