The Six Dimensions of the CIO

By Allen Bernard

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I don't normally base articles on blog postings, let alone a comment to a blog posting, but in this instance, Jed Simms founder and executive chairman of Capability Management in Australia, in replying to this blog posting on IT Business Edge about CIO's having a thankless job, has really nailed down what a CIO's job is all about and the challenges they face.

Basically, Simms states there are six dimensions to the job:

  • 1. Running operations/keeping the network up;
  • 2. Improving IT operations/reducing the costs of IT;
  • 3. Supporting applications development;
  • 4. Improving IT’s performance - in ways the business can see;
  • 5. Improving business operations - together with the business; and
  • 6. Improving business performance - together with the business.
  • The first four are, today, "table stakes," as Symantec CIO Dave Thompson puts it, for even having the title. But the last two, five and six, are where the rub is. While much is written (and lamented) regarding these two areas, they are still the hardest part of any CIO's job to achieve.

    "I think (six dimensions) were almost spot on," said Thompson. "The primary job of the CIO is those top four items really."

    But to move beyond that "[i]t really does depend on your executive team and your CEO and board and the role that they want you to play."

    Getting the business to look at technology as more than just infrastructure; to see it as the business enabler is has become, is difficult at best at many companies and almost impossible at others—even though report after report regarding best-in-class companies and their use of IT—highlight technology as a very important part of their success.

    "It is a delicate juggling act which requires the CIO to get the basics right (1-3) and then focus on the business dimensions which many aspire too," writes Simms. "But there is a catch, many businesses only want their CIOs to focus on 1-4; presenting a ‘glass ceiling’ for further progression. CIOs in these companies must either change the perception of IT or change their jobs."

    If you are frustrated by this, you are probably not alone. Most companies today (by some accounts, as high as 70%) don't view IT as a strategic enabler or look to technology as a tool for innovation. Keeping the lights on is enough to keep the CEO happy—even if you want to do more.

    "It's a given you have to have a stable infrastructure to run a business today," said Mike Scheuerman, a consultant and former CIO/CTO. "Even if you do have that, it doesn't mean you contributing to the business strategy."

    Changing the Game

    For some CIOs, this is going to be good enough. But if you are not content to sit still and watch and wait for your c-suite peers to see things differently, there are things you can do.

    It's all about communicating the benefits of what IT can do for the business, how it can improve operations, save money, add numbers to the bottom line, improve customer service, impact top-line growth, etc.

    The master key is finding the areas IT can have a positive impact on revenues, said Thompson."IT can be really expensive and the CEOs, of course, are watching every penny and I think that's where, as a CIO, if you articulate the value, you can really show the value of that investment, then it starts to change that opinion," said Thompson. "You get more interest from a CEO when they see that there's results that can be achieved by investing in IT."

    At Symantec, Thompson employs a multi-tiered review methodology made up of an IT Investment Board, which he chairs, an project management office and, inside of IT, an IT Steering Committee. Working together, these groups ensure that whatever new projects or IT investments under consideration are going to provide a monetary benefit to the company.

    "What I've done is brought the business right into the loop of making the decisions of where our dollars in IT are going to spent."

    Being Proactive

    Scheuerman also agrees with a proactive, teach-them-and-they-will-see-the-light approach to improving IT's visibility, impact and credibility within the c-suite.

    "The challenge there for the CIO; he's got to be a PR guy, he's got to be a salesman and understand that's part of the (job)," said Scheuerman. "He has to sell the fact that technology will in fact contribute to business strategy and he has to have ideas and he has to understand the business strategy in order to make that work. And I think there's were most CIOs fail."

    While easy to say, this is not easy to do in practice, even Scheuerman admits. To take the proactive high-road, you have to understand the business, not just technology. You have to put yourself in others' shoes and view IT and technology from their perspective, with an eye towards their concerns.

    "In my view at least, the CIO job is the hardest executive job around because you have to know everything there is to know about the business and the strategy," said Scheuerman. "And you have to know everything there is to know about technology and be able to link the two together and explain it to people who aren't focused on it, and don't care in some ways, and then turn around and translate this stuff to a bunch of geeks that work for you and say to them, 'This is why were doing this and this is how were doing it'."

    But, if you can do this, you will find yourself among an elite and growing group of CIOs who are beginning to realize the 'C' in CIO means more than just a mastery of technology.

    "As far as business performance," said Symantec's Thompson, "if the CIO views himself and treats himself and positions himself as a true executive in the company, then business performance should be a part of his job."