Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Sep 8, 2004

Jeanette James

Sisyphus, the Corinthian king condemned to roll a boulder to the top of a hill only to have it roll back down again -- for the rest of eternity -- surely could have understood the CIO's plight.

As soon as the CIO clears his or her desk for critical strategic planning, an employee downloads a virus and paralyzes the corporate network. Once that's under control and the IT department successfully installs a complex new enterprise software program, the CEO storms into the CIO's office yelling about budget overruns.

"We have had to learn to cope with the reality of providing highly reliable systems and the need to do the important, strategic projects that ensure that we have the capacity, resources and innovations that are needed by our customers," summarizes Sue Powers, CIO and senior vice president of worldwide product solutions at Worldspan in Atlanta. "It is not an either/or, but a 'find a way to do both' situation."

Set Clear Priorities and Procedures

So what's a CIO to do? Acknowledging that the conflict between daily IT trouble and strategic projects will always be there is the first step. Then a CIO can prioritize all the IT department's responsibilities and set standard procedures for managing each tasks. With clear priorities and procedures, people know with confidence how to manage conflicts when they arise.

"Plan for both strategic projects and problems to occur simultaneously," says Powers. "We take a continual approach to technology-refresh to ensure that we have a constant mix of strategic and spontaneous activities underway."

Even setting a procedure as simple as a price threshold for purchases the CIO needs to approve can be helpful to lighten the CIO's load of daily issues.

"If you have to phone the CIO before ordering every $200 product, that's probably not a tenable way to run an IT organization," says Barbara Gomolski, a research vice president at Gartner.

Engaging IT department customers in your long-term projects is another strategy for minimizing tension when IT fires erupt.

"Get customer support for the strategic project -- even if [it's related to] infrastructure -- so they will be less likely to 'declare an emergency' since they will know the impact it will have on the long-term projects and the inherent benefits of these projects," advises Powers.

CIOs also need to build a good team to which they can confidently delegate.

"If the CIO has to jump on the fire truck because he knows more than his people about the latest virus, there's a problem," says Steve Matheys, CIO at Schneider National, a large trucking company based in Green Bay, Wisc.

Matheys created a governance structure, for example, that reports back to him on key issues discussed in regular IT-department meetings. That frees him from too many weekly meetings but keeps him informed about department progress.

Part of developing such a governance structure is empowering your staff to make necessary choices.

Assess the Business Impact

"Give people the bandwidth to make good decisions," Gomolski suggests. She also advises using bottom-line impact to the business as the guiding principal for deciding when to delegate and when to take charge of an emergency issue personally.

"Look at the business impact," Gomolski says. "If there is a business impact, it's the CIO's problem."

Matheys adds that business impact is the best guide for setting strategy as well. Scrutinize your company's business plan, he advises and then ask yourself, as an IT department, "How well are we doing against our business plans?"

At Schneider, for example, Matheys isn't going to take the time to decide which cell-phone provider to use -- that's a task for his staff -- but he will evaluate how his department's decisions do or don't impact Schneider's bottom line, and then take necessary action.

Many see the balancing act as part of an ongoing evolution of the CIOs role from a technical specialist to a business executive. At many companies, the transition is another uphill battle. Frequently, the CIO is seen as someone who "comes back every year and begs for more money," but delivers little in return, says Phil Murphy, a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

"IT management and executive management share a deep level of distrust for one another," Murphy writes in a recent report about a rift between CIOs and other executives. "Executive management doubts IT's ability to measure and manage its assets as would any (non-IT) business manager." To repair such a rift, Murphy suggests talking to the CEO in terms he or she can understand -- dollars and cents.

"You have to be willing to know and understand the business" and not just your department's concerns, echoes Matheys. "Of course, it's easier said than done. It's a lot of hard work to earn your seat at the table. You have to be willing to play in their arena."


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