CIO in the Crosshairs

By Allen Bernard

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Ever since Y2K, and perhaps in the years just preceding it, CIOs have increasingly found themselves between a rock and the proverbial 'hard place'. Why? Because many sit at the crossroads of strategic initiatives handed down by executive committees and corporate boards, and the tactical implementation of those initiatives.

With IT so pervasive in (and instrumental to) the operation of any large enterprise today, not much gets done without it. This means the CIO, as the captain of the IT ship, is responsible on some level for the success and/or failure of such sweeping statements such as "We need to grow top line revenue," or "We must become a 'customer-centric' organization."

"The CIO is not only in the hot seat but they probably find themselves ill prepared to respond to some of these new mandates from the board and the executive committee," said Brian Sommer, vice president of Field Research services at Aberdeen. "There's just a hole out there in the big lack of technology; we've automated transaction processing but that doesn't help us with the new strategic priorities CIOs have to address."

The problem is exacerbated because, all too often, the CIO is still not part of the planning or business process that leads to sweeping new initiatives. This means without a clear understanding of the business case, the CIO is hampered from the outset. This only adds to the pressure of getting things done, said Dan Baumgartner, a managing partner at Tatum Partners, a management consultancy.

"The CIO's job ... is to deliver," agreed Wick Keating, CTO of American Management Systems. "And they're the ones that can say 'I'm sure the CRM vendor's salesforce told you this can get done in three months with people working part-time. But the reality is its going to take six months and were going to need a team of 30, and I don't have 30."

In practical terms what this means is the CIO is often tasked with projects they are ill equipped to handle. And, without any part in the planning process, they are unable to adequately temper board-level expectations about the time, resources and money required to make sweeping changes occur. To often, by those outside of IT, technology is viewed as a 'black box' that simply needs to be turned on.

Granted, the CIO is hardly the only bottleneck in any strategic corporate shift, but often they may find themselves to be one of the first. Not much can happen at a tactical level without IT's involvement. Most business processes rely on IT to execute and if those processes are to be changed to meet a new corporate focus, the execution of that focus comes down to IT.To counter this situation, Sommer suggests finding the money to hire business/IT savvy staffers. These folks will then help with the outside contracting that will inevitably go on if the CIO is to successfully execute major changes with limited resources. MBA's working the middle ranks of major and minor IT consultancies are often good choices, he said.

"If ever there was a time CIO's need to upgrade their staff, it's now," said Sommer.

"That's were the CIO is a little stuck," added Keating, "because the business people are starting to see opportunities ... and the CIOs are still in the position where they can't add sufficient resources to make all those business people happy."

Keating suggests partnering with the business unit heads who also are responsible for the tactical execution of strategic goals. In this way, not everything is laid at the feet of the CIO. Good communication between the interested parties can go a long way to alleviating a lot of pain.

"Basically, the CIO takes the hit on a project not being implemented and the reality is; what they are trying to do is move away from the IT project and move towards the terminology of 'This is a business initiative and all IT is, is one of the teammates'," agreed Bill Waas, CEO of the Illinois CIO Exchange.

For now, unless something dramatic happens, the hot seat is probably going to get hotter as the economy picks up and companies kick into growth mode. To survive, insisting on a seat at the decision making table is a good idea, find good help, and get the business unit heads involved. If you do this, say the experts, while you may not be able to move out of the crosshairs completely at the least you'll not be there alone.