Performance Improvement and the CIO

By Matt Podowitz

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Performance improvement is a top business priority in the “new normal” as organizations seek to perpetuate the cost savings they achieved during the economic downturn and leverage even greater value from their existing assets.

While many performance improvement efforts are undertaken informally and within individual departments, others represent board-level initiatives and span the entire operations of the company. Performance improvement initiatives can touch almost every department within a company. But these diverse and disparate initiatives have a few things in common:

-- A goal of reexamining and streamlining processes for both efficiency and effectiveness. -- Involvement of individuals with deep seated resistance to change, often resulting from fear of losing their jobs. -- A high degree of dependence on existing or new IT.

Because IT is almost always involved, significant opportunities exist to improve the execution and outcome of these initiatives by leveraging four “hidden talents” of most CIOs.

Eyes on the forest and the trees

Unlike many other core business functions, IT touches most every department within the company in a significant way. As a result, most CIOs have a big picture view of company operations (and challenges) that is as broad as the CEO’s. However, since most CIOs are involved in significant business process improvement initiatives and large-scale information systems deployments, they often also have a solid understanding of how things work in and between most departments.

This combined breadth and depth of perspective gives CIOs insights into where the greatest potential performance gains are to be had; both within a given department and in the processes that flow across multiple departments of the company. This unique CIO perspective is too important to go unleveraged, and it makes the CIO an ideal leader for performance improvement initiatives or, at the least, a valuable member of the project committee.

Agents of change

Almost any business executive or manager will agree that large-scale systems implementations (such as ERP, CRM and sales force automation systems) are among the most stressful business events they have experienced. The reason for this is simple: such implementations require fundamental changes in process and culture and often organizational structure at every level of the company. As a result, managing the acceptance (and resistance) to that change is usually a critical factor in the ultimate success or failure of the project. Most CIOs have served as the sponsors or leaders of such large-scale systems implementation projects and thus have cultivated their ability to both proactively and reactively manage the natural resistance to any significant process, organization or technology change.

Equally significant is the experience most CIOs have with managing the expectations of their fellow business executives and boards of directors during strategic discussions and budget cycles. Even when outside change management specialists are expected to play a role in a performance improvement initiative, the typical CIO’s experience as an agent of change can greatly facilitate both the planning and execution of change management efforts that are so critical to the success of performance improvement projects.

Technology enablement and enablement of technology

Most performance improvement in today’s business environment comes from implementing better business processes and maximizing the degree of automation of those processes. Many business applications are designed to facilitate both goals: Incorporating industry and departmental best-practices and automating not only core processes, but many of the ancillary processes that historically have been handled manually.

Whether performance improvement initiatives will involve implementing new business applications or simply take advantage of those that already have been put in place, the CIOs familiarity with the company’s business applications (including unutilized or under-utilized capabilities) and those used by others in the industry can be instrumental in developing achievable programs of performance improvement.

On the other side of the equation, and a stumbling block for many company initiatives is the disconnect between expectations for IT and the resources required to fulfill those expectations. Most CIOs are masters of managing such disconnects and rallying scarce IT resources to support major projects.

By placing CIOs at the helm of performance improvement initiatives, IT’s opportunity and ability to contribute will be maximized.

Program and project leadership

Performance improvement initiatives are among the most complex and difficult to manage initiatives that companies can undertake. In fact, performance improvement initiatives can be just as complicated from a management perspective as large scale systems implementations -- which are often led by CIOs or by others who eventually go on to become CIOs.

Many CIOs already have both the expertise and experience required to manage large-scale, complex corporate initiatives. As the leader of a performance improvement initiative or as a member of the project committee, this inherent CIO talent can be leveraged to improve the efficiency and the effectiveness with which the project is undertaken and improve the chances for a successful outcome.

As companies embark on performance improvement initiatives, it is well worth determining whether the CIO possesses some or all of these four talents and exploring how they might be leveraged by placing the CIO in a leadership role. Companies that find their CIO lacks these abilities may want to consider cultivating them by involving the CIO in the performance improvement initiative in some capacity other than a leadership role.

Matt Podowitz is a strategic management consultant at Grant Thornton assisting entrepreneurial, middle market and Fortune 500 clients maximize returns on investment in operations and IT and address business considerations in strategic transactions such as mergers, acquisitions and divestitures. He can be reached at matt.podowitz@gt.com.