Getting Out Of The Engine Room

By Drew Robb

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Regulatory complexity, exploding storage demands, constricted budgets. It all adds up to CIO's with their sleeves rolled up or fixated on "immediate ROI" projects. Unfortunately, this means too little time spent on the core of the job description -- IT strategy.

"CIO's and CTO's tend to fall into day-to-day tasks to fulfill the perception among their colleagues or their boards that they be significantly involved in the trenches," said Adam Gwosdof, CTO of Applimation in New York City.

Delegation Of Duty

So how does a CIO who is drowning in the day-to-day move into more of a strategic role? Gwosdof's suggests delegating yourself out of operational tasks by hiring the best and brightest to do it for you, and to re-introduce yourself gradually to the big picture.

This was the methodology adopted by David Kaercher, vice president of IT at Allianz Life Insurance of America. He selected 10 people out of his 100 person IT staff and made them responsible for charting the future.

"I took these staff out of daily operations, gave them a strategic role and made them immerse themselves in business objectives, not IT," said Kaercher. "My job now is reminding them they are on the bridge, not in the engine room."

Fine in theory. But when the Oracle database goes down and millions are being lost each day, the pain is so great that it escalates onto the CIO's plate in milliseconds. And once the disaster is over, CFO's don't want to hear about another $10 million to attain 'five-nines' or $100 million for a redundant data center.

Something Different

Good CIOs find affordable alternatives, such as a military-like disaster recovery (DR) plan. It doesn't cost a lot to drill staff on the anatomy of disaster. Time them every step of the way and shoot for better numbers each time. This shows up the gaping DR holes, and the embarrassment proves helpful in convincing the CIO's second in command to keep his pager handy and be on standby all weekend. The end result is well-groomed DR processes, and a CIO who feels far less threatened by downtime."There will be outages, and one of these days a disaster," said Mark Bradley, chief technology strategist at Islandia, NY-based Computer Associates. "CIO's can get more in control by putting DR plans in place and teaching staff how to execute them via full-scale rehearsals."

Bradley also preaches realism for those in the CIO seat. Perhaps a few years back, CIO's aspired to a top-management perch. Some even attained it for a while. But now that e-business has lost its 'Wow' top management expects to be served by IT, not directed by it. CIO's nowadays are far less likely to play a pivotal role in strategy sessions.

"CIO's no longer dictate what the enterprise can and cannot do," said Bradley. "The reality is that IT is a service provider for the business as a whole and must be guided by business strategy."

This viewpoint fits with the experience of Rick Peltz, CIO of real estate investment brokerage Marcus & Millichap. He reports to both the CEO and CFO at his company, and admits that the CFO typically calls the shots.

"The CFO dictates my budget and demands clear cut ROI for any technology purchases," said Peltz.

Thus CIO's must view the business as a whole, and work out how to utilize IT to support ongoing strategies. Although that may not be a top echelon function, it is still high up the totem pole. By operating a small notch below top management strategy, it's up to the CIO to figure out what technology and IT direction will take the company to its goals.

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