Global CIO: Will CIOs Sit Out The Opportunity of A Lifetime?

Mobile and social look bigger than the initial Web surge when it comes to changing companies' relationships with customers. Innovators like Vail CIO Robert Urwiler are testing the edges.
Robert Urwiler, CIO of Vail Resorts, the company behind Vail and five other ski resorts, went into a meeting in mid-March with his CEO, Rob Katz, that was scheduled for an hour. It ran almost two.

The topic: What to add for the next ski season to the resort's breakthrough smartphone and Web app, EpicMix. Launched this year, the app lets customers do things like see how many vertical feet they skied in a day, brag about their feats with friends on Facebook, and even share their location in real time on the mountain.

Brainstorming sessions like the one between Urwiler and Katz point to a simple reality: The mobile and social Web will change how companies interact with customers even more than the wired Web did. CIOs who aren't having this kind of look-ahead conversation with their CEOs and the rest of their companies’ leadership teams risk missing the business opportunity of their lifetimes.

Many of us worked through the dot-com boom and bust. Do something on the Web--anything--just to make sure your company isn't the loser that doesn't "get" the Web. The mobile and social Web present that same sense of urgency, bordering on hype-fueled panic. The risk, though, is being too cautious.

Looking back, maybe your company didn't need to do a massive e-commerce project in 1999. But as you sit here in 2011, can you say the Web was overhyped in terms of long-term impact? Do you really wish you'd waited until, say, 2004 to get rolling on a Web strategy?

The mobile Internet will be even more powerful. Businesses have a chance to reach customers at the ultimate decision point--when they're shopping, buying, installing, using, fixing, criticizing, or bragging about your product--in a way that the wired Web doesn't allow.

Mobile and social are no doubt a leap into the unknown for many companies. Mistakes will be made. Some ambitious and even expensive projects will look silly in hindsight. Nonetheless, CIOs and their IT teams have a chance to make a huge and lasting impact on how their companies do business.

Vail's Urwiler knows all the uncertainty well. The foundation of the EpicMix apps was laid several years ago, when Vail implemented an RFID system on ski lift tickets so it could record when a guest gets onto any lift. That system created the base data for the new options of social features such as sharing activity and location data, or the resort’s awarding digital "pins" that recognize feats like riding every Vail ski lift in one day.

But integrating all that with Facebook isn't simple. Urwiler says some features his IT pros enable might work one day and not the next, and they have to figure out why. Sometimes it might be for technical reasons, or it might be because of a change in Facebook's rules for integration or data sharing.

"You have to go in with eyes wide open that the rules are probably going to change, they're going to change rapidly, and it's probably going to affect you," Urwiler says. "It's a living, breathing environment that's evolving very, very quickly. ... If you're going to play in that space, you have to be willing and able to be agile yourself."

The Vail IT team has partnered with mobile development specialists so far, but Urwiler feels that it needs to build up more of that expertise in-house. More than anything, though, he thinks he and his team need to think more than ever about what customers are demanding, and how IT can be part of the experience that helps differentiate the company's resorts from others.

"We have to be in hyper development mode about what we don't know," Urwiler says. "We really do have to change our position from thinking of ourselves being pure internal service providers and order takers to people who are on the outside looking in like a customer and asking, 'What would you want?'"

CIOs and their IT teams won't own mobile and social initiatives. Urwiler sits with a tech-savvy CEO and fellow executive committee members who bombard one another with possibilities. CIOs must make themselves a vital part of those conversations--or, if they're not happening, they need to be the ones to light the spark.