Are You Strategic?

Jun 14, 2006

Allen Bernard

For many CIOs, the last few years have been pretty good times. Budgets are up (not a lot, but up is up), cost-cutting efforts have matured, and a host of new technologies are making IT leaner, more transparent and reliable.

Along with these improvements and efforts, IT and CIOs have gained new respect for enabling the businesses they serve to also become leaner, more agile and reliable. And, in some industries (but not all), the role of CIO has been elevated beyond a simple tactician charged with keeping the lights on, to a more strategic role.

But this may be changing … again. While more CIOs than last year are reporting to the CEO according to the latest survey of 500 IT executives, this is a only a slight (two percent) up-tick since 2003. Over the past four years, the trend has been downward.

More telling, according to Dan Gingras, a partner at Tatum, LLC, which provides interim CIOs to companies, is a perusal of the online job boards. Here, most companies that post CIO positions are looking for people who have things like MCSE (Microsoft certified systems engineer) certifications.

What this says to Gingras, who has been a CIO at five companies, is most companies either a) have no idea what the job of CIO is all about, or b) what they are really looking for is a manager of IT. They just put the CIO title on the job because they don't really know any better. According to Gingras, anywhere from 60 percent to 75 percent of all job postings for CIOs are misclassified.

"(CIOs) are having a hard time producing anything that the business says is strategic," agreed Tom Bugnitz, a senior consultant at the IT consultancy Cutter Consortium. "Other than a new strategic tool or something else the business can then apply (to its strategy) there's very little business strategic thinking the CIO is able to inject into the business."

Now, to be fair, it does depend on what business you are in. Manufacturing, for example, primarily views IT as necessary red ink, but, in financial services, for example, IT is the life-blood of a company's ability to transact business. The size of the business and its technical complexity also play a role.

Still these factors don't necessarily mean the CIO is automatically going to be viewed as a strategic asset; even though you, as the CIO, may think you are, said Josh Greenbaum, principal and founder of Enterprise Applications Consulting.

"The vast majority of CIOs I talk to want that (strategic) role," he said. "How many of them really get it is more complicated than that. They may perceive their value differently than everyone else does."

And, according to Bob Benson, also a senior consultant at Cutter, this is really how it should be. IT is, in essence, a tactical department. As technologists first and foremost, few CIOs truly understand the businesses they support and, therefore, really can't offer much in the way of strategic business advice to their organizations.

Also, business strategy (if there is any) logically flows from the business. It is IT's job to support this strategy. Not the other way around.

"So what it comes down to is that the strategic vision flows from the business," said Benson. "Yeah, there's some IT enablement going on but that's what it is, it's not anything more significant or more important than that."

This is not to say, as Nicholas Carr points out, that IT "doesn't matter" because its become a commodity. It does. Very much, said Benson. And CIOs are extremely important members of the C-level staff. It's just that that doesn't necessarily translate into a strategic role for the CIO.

"As far as (Nick Carr) goes, he's right about that, but that doesn't mean that IT doesn't matter. IT does matter. Enormously. All we're arguing about here is does that mean the CIO deserves to rub shoulders with the CEO in the executive lunchroom?"

If you do want to rub shoulders with the CEO then it is up to you to promote yourself and your department's accomplishments in—and this is important—business terms. And, to do this, you have speak in terms of what IT is doing right, and how IT is doing the right things.

"The CIO only has two things to do: He's got to communicate with the business side that 1) IT's doing the right thing and 2) that IT's doing it right, said Benson.

"[T]he CIO's got to be doing a better job of saying they're doing the right thing and 'Oh, by the way, here's where we otta be going and doing the right thing'. If the CIO can't do that, then (the answer to whether you are viewed as strategic) it's going to be increasingly no."


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