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Behind closed doors When Bill Gates wants to know what's really going on he makes a date with the Research Board - a shadowy group of IT's finest who, if the mythology is correct, are wiser to the future of the industry than any other organisation. David Bicknell reports

In a world where the IT industry is consistently under attack from an army of statisticians, analysts and pundits who think they know it all, it is refreshing to find an organisation that really does. Just ask Bill Gates, who regularly attends Research Board meetings. The Research Board is not based in Los Somethingorother in Silicon Valley, but in a red-brick New York townhouse, with a pleasant conservatory and a sedate, almost reverential air. Even the tea is served elegantly at this august address.

Receiving an invitation to join this exclusive organisation is arguably the pinnacle of an IT director's career. You don't get to join just by being with a successful company. Only the real movers and shakers are ever invited to become members.

There are currently about 100 members, with the most influential of them drawn from "very large companies" with annual sales each approaching #10bn. The combined IT buying power of all the members is probably in excess of #20bn. For all its quiet and tranquil surroundings, the Research Board is an industry heavyweight and has been influencing corporate technology buying decisions for three decades. Organisations represented on the main board include General Motors, American Express, Coca-Cola, Federal Express, Wal-Mart, and BP Amoco.

In addition to the main board, there is also an Associate Board in both the US and Europe for smaller, but still highly successful companies. Bass Brewers, British Airways, GlaxoWellcome, Unilever, NatWest, Axa, and Bertelsmann are all members of the European board. Marks & Spencer, represented by John Sacher until his recent departure from the retailer, is also a member.

Sacher, who is highly regarded by the Research Board staff, is expected to return to prominence somewhere else. Another departing Research Board veteran is John Cross, formerly head of IT at BP Amoco, who recently left to join a Washington think-tank. While these two have moved on, other reputations are growing. Simon Orebi-Gann at the London International Financial Futures Exchange is one whose opinion is highly valued at Research Board meetings. Another recent addition to the board is to its staff. Patricia Higgins has joined from aluminium company Alcoa as a partner.

Three words at the top of the Board's understated home-page provide clues to the philosophy underpinning the way it works: relationship, independence, breadth.

The board is able to maintain high-level relationships within the industry and understand the most thorny problems affecting the delivery of IT to business needs because its membership is restricted to IT directors at the most influential users. The board guarantees its independence through the rule that suppliers cannot be members, and it has long refused to accept any fees from suppliers. Because of this independence its members have greater confidence in its conclusions.

The Research Board only publishes three major reports a year, of between 70 and 100 pages each. The topics are chosen by the membership and so represent the issues of most immediate strategic concern. In some cases, the fact that chief information officers (CIOs) have isolated such issues means that the board addresses them up to a year ahead of the more 'commercial' analytical companies.

For example, as long ago as 1993, the report Invisible Hands challenged the idea that client/server computing was going to be a cheaper architecture than mainframe computing. This was long before the client/server fad got going. One Research Board member said she had a gut feeling that client/server computing would prove to be more expensive. The Research Board's report gave her the ammunition she needed to address the client/server myth.

Research Board reports are so highly regarded that one CIO refused to buy Lotus Notes until he had digested a report on knowledge management, while an early study on the likely effects of electronic commerce quickly ascertained that Web sites needed to satisfy Net users that key information was just "three clicks away".

In addition to their relevance, the titles of the reports are often intriguing. Eyeways and Adapations was an early insight into e-commerce, while Quixotic Interludes provided an overview of the computer industry.

Unlike the plethora of research notes, bulletins, summaries, briefs and reports which other firms publish in a variety of guises to justify their fees, the Research Board's aim is to put technology into the context of business needs. There are no simple predictions on hot technologies or suppliers, or daily "takes" from analysts. This is not to belittle the views of analysts, it just indicates that the Research Board plays to a more elite audience.

The publication of the board's reports are followed by formal meetings at which their conclusions are discussed. Discussed vigorously is perhaps a better description as members are expected to have thoroughly absorbed the report's contents before attending the meeting. But this is not usually a hardship for the members. It has been said that one leading US CIO tears up his daily schedule so that he can spend half a day digesting reports when they arrive.

The reports themselves are the result of a huge amount of background research and a number of personal interviews. A great deal of time is then spent editing the reports. "We believe in brevity, and making the reports concise and fun to read," says Research Board partner, Ann Seligman.

The meetings themselves offer a prime opportunity for the world's leading CIOs to swap problems with their peers. Seligman says what is most impressive is how members are able to put aside company rivalries in order to address common issues. "It is surprising how people in the same industry band together," says Seligman. Equally, organisations from differing sectors, such as BP or Marks & Spencer, may have much more in common than originally thought, simply because the issues affecting one CIO is likely to affect them all at some point.

The board has not always been so confident that CIOs would discuss their operations so openly. "I was impressed at how members of the European Board were willing to overcome competitiveness conflicts to share information," says Seligman.

The current turbulent state of the industry means that CIOs are under pressure. They are having to cope with a world dominated by the costs and disruption caused by the date bug, and where PCs, for so long the standard, may be replaced by a range of devices. The Research Board has also identified a number of issues such as why product quality is given less priority than flashy features that few business users ever exercise; whether indirect distribution channels satisfy the needs of Research Board-scale users; and whether mergers and acquisitions are replacing research and development. All these problems mean that users need all the help they can get.

Concerns Over the past 18 months or so, the board has tracked Y2K problems with its membership. The most recent concern is the fear that the CIO may be held responsible for areas that he or she has no control over yet. Generally though, the CIOs of large organisations are already looking over the horizon at Y2K issues and beyond.

The Research Board's three most recent main topics for research give a clue to what ought to be on the minds of IT chiefs.

How IT supports corporate expansion into other countries, and what problems does such expansion brings.

Telecommunications - how to find your way around a maze of services and costs at a time of great competitive and technological change.

Human resources - this involves researching more than the basic skills problems. Data that might be considered in a Research Board human resources report are the birth rates in different countries, and how inventive companies are in retraining their workforces and reskilling the jobs.

The board has also begun to look at how applications will be used in the future. This has incorporated looking at the success or failure of implementing enterprise resource planning systems and why users have had such difficulties implementing them.

Sometimes the evidence from these top-notch CIOs indicates the dismay that information leaders feel over how unready their organisations are to embrace issues such as e-commerce and the Internet. "The Information Age is here, and none of us are ready to grab it," says one board member.

Perhaps the only issue about its affairs the Research Board has had to explain is its apparent secrecy. By handpicking its members this makes it "a very private and influential club", as one US profile has described it. The board has consistently declined to give financial details of its operations or membership fees, nor has it released details of its membership. It does not actively seek publicity, nor does it have highly paid public relations firms seeking media coverage for its reports. It is significant perhaps, that, no one outside the board's membership has ever seen one of its reports.

Perhaps that is why it retains its mystique and why an invitation to join is rarely spurned. The board insists that it is not secretive, but explains simply that its raison d'tre relies on relationships that require discretion.

In a tumultuous IT world, where product launches, hype and inflated claims are par for the course, the Research Board offers space for reflection and a glimpse of reality. It also gives users the chance to regain an edge. The drawback? Only the best need apply.

Origin of board members

Boeing Daimler-Chrysler Caterpillar Ford Lockheed Martin General Motors British Airways ABN Amro Bank Federal Express JP Morgan Bass Brewers Nat-West Coca-Cola Marks & Spencer Levi Strauss Bank of America Nabisco Wal-Mart Nestle BP Amoco Unilever Glaxo-Wellcome Mobil Bertelsmann Citicorp Axa

Catch up with all the latest Y2K issues in Millennium.

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-- Mike Lang (, May 13, 1999


When I first read this article I starting to have that creeping "Im wrong to worry" feeling. All these CIOs of such big companies sitting around in leather chairs seemingly unconcerned about Y2K. But after I read it a second time, Im not so sure.

This article smells like a plant to me. Such a lot of fuss is made about how secretive and selective this club is, yYet, Computer Weekly sure seems to know a lot about what the Board is thinking and writing about considering "no one outside the board's membership has ever seen one of its reports."

And what about "nor has it released details of its membership"? What is that at the end of the article? Are we supposed to think that because they dont name the CIOs that their secrecy is maintained? How hard is it to find out the name of the CIO of Glaxo-Wellcom? Coca Cola? Please. The more I look at this article, the more I think it is generated by these "very large companies" to placate the masses.

The article is very subtle; it never directly addresses Y2K, it only implies that it isnt a problem in their very large companies by saying that "The most recent concern is the fear that the CIO may be held responsible for areas that he or she has no control over yet." In other words, that same old "were okay, its the other guy were worried about." And then the final Y2K dismissal: "Generally though, the CIOs of large organisations are already looking over the horizon at Y2K issues and beyond."

Oh, Im so relieved.

-- Goombah (, May 13, 1999.

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