The King and I(T)
By Michael Jones
CIO as Business Partner
One of the most important skills a CIO can possess is the ability to partner with the business. Many CIO’s fail to do this effectively because they are more worried about getting credit and recognition than they are about getting the job done. In point of fact, the more successful CIO’s rarely get credit for individual projects, but rather they are recognized by the Executive Staff and often the Board of Directors for creating an Information Technology organization that enables the business to achieve their goals while keeping costs in line.
In order to be an effective partner, the CIO must alter the typical perspective. As the leader of the IT department, it is normal to think about what investments in IT are required in order to deliver what the business requires. However, many IT leaders see the investments in IT as the end goal, rather than as the means to an end. The result is a barrage of requests from IT for additional headcount, capital investments, and baseline expense increase. While the justification of the business goals seems like it should be sufficient, the perception of the other executives is that IT just wants more people and money.
We have heard for years that the key to successful for large (IT) projects is getting complete management support, including the Executive Sponsor. In fact, many CIOs have been proud of the fact that they are the Executive Sponsor for a major company initiative that involves significant IT investment. The problem is that there are very few IT projects that are, in and of themselves, valid business objectives. Rather, the business objective is being enabled by the investment in IT, among other areas.
Two of the worst investments that a company can make are in technology that is not driven by business purpose and in fulfilling the wants of key users rather than their needs. The savvy CIO brings technology to bear to help resolve business problems and enable business objectives. The true business partnered-CIO works to learn the needs of the business rather than just responding to what the business says that they want.
CIO’s Many Hats
So what role is the CIO supposed to play, if not the leadership and sponsorship roles for major IT investments? There are several key roles to be addressed.
- Counselor – Above all, the CIO must be a great listener. The CIO must be able to hear what is being said, what is being implied and what is not being said.
- Partner – Each member of the management team should feel that they have a partner in the person of the CIO. The other managers have business objectives that need to be met, problems that must be overcome and timelines within which they need to achieve their goals. Before the CIO can begin to address what IT needs to accommodate the business requirements, they must first understand and internalize those requirements.
- Technologist – Selection of the best technology, and application of the correct technology is the primary skill advantage that the CIO has over the other members of the team. It is the CIO to know what technologies can be brought to bear in order to enable the company to achieve their business goals. In most cases this will be an established and stable technology. In some cases, it may be a relatively new and riskier technology. The CIO helps the business understand the risks and benefits of the available technology choices.
- Business Process Analyst – The CIO must be able to help the business improve processes. This may involve process improvement, process elimination or process development.
- Investment Advisor – Businesses must constantly evaluate which investments are required or advantageous. Technology investments are often mysterious and hard to evaluate to the business leaders. It is the job of the CIO to remove the mystery and make clear the evaluation process to the business so that a prudent decision can be made by the entire team.
- Executive – As a member of the executive team, the CIO must look at all investments and priorities with the stakeholders, shareholders, business owners, customers and company team members in mind. The best CIOs will look at investments dispassionately and be part of the team process to evaluate all opportunities, selecting those that best serve the shareholders of the company.
- Program Manager – Finally, the CIO must insure the proper execution of the chosen investments. The deliverables, budget, schedule and quality must be properly managed to yield the best outcome for the organization.
It may seem odd that the role of Executive Sponsor or Project Champion is not included in the list above. The omissions are intentional, not accidental. When the CIO is in the position of sponsor or champion for business initiatives, the perspective of the project invariably becomes technology and the business team members often then allow other priorities to assume level or even higher emphasis. This can be disastrous and should be avoided.
By leaving the Sponsor role up to the business leader whose functional area most benefits from the project, the Sponsor must now look to each of the teams and ask – “What do you need in order to make this project a success?” This leaves the CIO in the enabling position and makes the request for headcount, capital and expense funding part of the solution, rather than having it seem to be the goal of the project. One cautionary note – if the CIO tries to take advantage of the situation, they may come off as a greedy supplier. The result may be that they will find themselves in a competitive bidding situation with outsiders being invited in to provide more a more cost-effective solution.
The (IT) Customer is King
The key to all of this is for the CIO to play their role properly. The business is responsible to deliver the product and services to the customers at a cost that will yield the best long term profits to the shareholders. IT is an enabler, allowing the business to meet that prime directive.