Special Report - IBM 2011 CIO Study Unenlightening

By John Hughes

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Anxious to read IBM’s 2011 biannual CIO study The Essential CIO? If you are, I can save you a lot time.

At 72 pages, I found the report a slog overall. Although there’s lots of white space and diagrams that make the read a bit easier, the first 85% of the report was a trudge, filled with well-traveled notions of IT leadership. The last 15%, however, was meaty and gave me what I expected and craved from the first 62 pages.

Let’s be clear: This is a marketing piece from IBM. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that. IBM is a leader in business and technology and they need to show that they are in fact leading. (They produce companion CEO studies as well, so they’re leading from both technology and business sides of the house.)

There is a disconnect, however, between IBM’s role as an industry leader and what they present in the first 85% of the report. (This is the part of the report that you can skip.)

Who needs a CIO?

IBM asks and answers this question in the study, and the results make up the introduction to the report. The problem is, the answer is already universally known and understood. IBM cleverly managed to turn the obvious into the complex. (They proudly share that the results of the study “were derived from iterative cluster analysis, including state-of-the-art statistical and textual analysis.”, P. 16)

Let’s call this an unimpressive lowlight.

There is nothing earth-shattering in the introduction. They present their four CIO leadership mandates (or “CIO boxes” as I call them), which make up the core of the study, and which are similar to other IT value models floating around consulting firms the world over.

If you’re curious, I suggest skimming the introduction. And you can definitely skip the quotes -- you’ll be scratching your head as to the point or relevance of most of them anyway.

There are two important aspects to the introduction that are worth sharing – the four leadership mandates and an incorrect comment about how the mandates interrelate.

The 4 Mandates

Based on interviews with over 3,000 CIOs the world over, IBM discovered that CIOs in general receive one of four leadership mandates from the companies or organizations they serve.

Leverage - “These organizations view IT as a provider of fundamental technology services. Their CIOs are asked to streamline operations for greater organizational effectiveness.”

Only 14% of CIOs that IBM interviewed operate with a Leverage mandate. (Skip the full section on Leverage in the body of the report, but do read the Leverage recommendations on page 26 to better understand IBM’s view of this mandate.)

Expand - CIOs from these organizations “lead IT operations that help expand organizational capabilities by refining business processes and enhancing enterprise-wide collaboration.”

About 48% of CIOs operate with an Expand mandate. (Skip the full section on Expand, but read the Expand recommendations on page 37 if this applies to you.)

Transform - “Organizations with this mandate see IT primarily as providers of industry-specific solutions to change the business.”

About 25% of CIOs operate with a Transform mandate. (Skip the full section on this as well, but read the recommendations on page 48.)

Pioneer - “Here, organizations view IT predominantly as a critical enabler of the business/organizational vision.”

About 13% of CIOs that IBM interviewed operate with a Transform mandate. (Again, skip the section, but read the recommendations on page 58.)

In the actual body of the report, I found it difficult to distinguish between these mandates. There is a great deal of overlap between them in IBM’s dialogue. The writers even comment how CIOs operate in all four mandates, but to differing degrees.

I found this a bit confusing.

One comment in the report that I strongly disagree with appeared at the end of the introduction, on Page 19. IBM believes that “These mandates are not a progression or continuum of responsibilities for CIOs.”


If you’re a CIO and the business mandates that you begin to “pioneer” profitable new services in collaboration with marketing, for example, but the business has kept you in the leverage box ... er, mandate, since your arrival a few years back, how could you possibly be successful? It’s not possible to be innovative if you haven’t achieved strategic alignment with the business (Transform mandate), or certainly if you haven’t achieved tactical alignment with the business (Leverage mandate).

IBM is defining a continuum, but for some reason chooses not to see it that way. Each mandate can only be successful if the previous mandate has been solidified. And, like the Marines, no IT organization ever leaves a mandate behind. They will continue to deliver on and improve tactical, operational, strategic and innovative needs.

The Meat

IBM did serve up some meat with their marketing sizzle, however. In the last section, “Excelling in your mandate,” I was finally rewarded for my slog through obviousville. Beginning on page 63, IBM delivers. They challenge CIOs to lead. And not just lead IT, but lead the business.

Hurray for IBM!

While I read over and over that CIOs need to understand the mandate the business places on them, IBM finally admits that operating in a specific box ... er, mandate, may not actually be in the best interest of the organization! Maybe, just maybe, the CIO has a bigger vision for the company. And maybe, just maybe, the CIO could lead everyone to a higher-value mandate -- one that would produce greater returns for all stakeholders.

“Having earned their trusted spot in the C-suite, CIOs are poised to help lead even more than before. To be transformative in supporting their own mandates, each can benefit from the nuggets of truth shared by others.” (Page 64.)

CIOs can support their own mandates?!? In other words, maybe, just maybe, CIOs could move from being just technology leaders to being business leaders? And maybe CIOs can educate other business leaders that the mandate they’ve been forced into sells IT short?

Forget that I just wrote "just maybe," the answer is "Yes!" CIOs can be business leaders.

I don’t understand why IBM wasted 62 pages telling us about all of these other mandates if, in the end, they actually desire and challenge CIOs to support their own mandates (scratch, scratch).

Essential actions: Start here

If you read only one page read page 65. It’s where the meat and the sizzle come together.

IBM provides five actions to take to become a CIO of significance. (I've added my thoughts to each action. Bullet No. 4 is my favorite and needs to be the top priority for every CIO on the face of the earth ... regardless of the box that your company mandates you operate in!)

1. Collaborate beyond what is currently imagined - Be an enabler, innovator, collaborator, educator, initiator of discussing what's possible. But don't forget to also take action, to practice, prototype, play with these ideas.

2. Live simplification as a daily goal - Continually improve IT, business operations and your broader value chain. Seek to eliminate bureaucracy and inefficiencies wherever they rear their ugly, value-draining heads.

3. Embrace the power of analytics - What's your data telling your organization? What patterns exist in your unstructured data? Are you asking what knowledge, answers, ideas, solutions, revenue, profit are you leaving on the table? Do you have the team and tools to know?

4. Help grow profitability and seek new revenue - Become an entrepreneurial business leader. Develop the mindset that you exist to grow a business, not just select, implement and manage technology. This will require, though, that you build an IT organization that can execute without you.

5. Provide unparalleled IT expertise - I don't agree with IBM that the CIO should "become the ultimate expert at understanding and integrating the newest technologies," as they phrase it in the report. I do believe, however, that the CIO is responsible for building and leading an IT organization that can achieve this mission. A CIO will fail if they stay involved in IT operations and also try to become a business leader. They will be stretched to these extremes and then break like a rubber band.

So, in summary,:

And, finally, here is my own personal mandate for CIOs:

John D. Hughes is founder of GrowthWave, an interim CIO/CEO advisory firm in Seattle and author of the recently released leadership fable, Haunting the CEO: A tale of true leadership in an era of IT failure. John can be reached at jhughes@growthwave.com.