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The nine passions of enlightened CIOs

The nine passions of enlightened CIOs

Thomas Friedman's book The World Is Flat has finally disappeared from the Top Ten books list, but for more than a year it was a must-read for anyone interested in understanding what is happening in global business these days and how globalization is impacting our lives and our children's lives. That said, the book really was more of a current-state/future-state snapshot of globalization. Friedman wrote an earlier book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, that really uncovered the roots of globalization and described how capital markets have been rewired over the past 15 years. That book discusses the changes that have occurred to the very underpinnings of business, explores our growing global economic interdependence, and explains why the future business landscape is unlikely to ever resemble the good old days again.

This new world order has been evolving since around 1990 or so, and we in the IT industry have responded to it with such efforts, fads, buzzwords, and new technologies as reengineering, the Internet, outsourcing, optimization, virtualization, and many others. However, we really have not seen the changes enabled by these new technologies and evolving global business needs holistically -- as a call for new ways of doing business -- and we certainly have not rallied ourselves as a profession to rethink the way we extract value from technology in our businesses. We should be moving quickly away from inflexible legacy environments, modularizing and componentizing our business processes and technology services, perfecting global talent and services sourcing, and engineering service levels and metrics into our operations as a means of improving delivery consistency. High-performance IT is all about high service predictability and reliability -- delivering on time, on budget, on scope, and on quality -- and effective planning that allows IT to flexibly deliver capability when the business needs it.

While there are highly enlightened CIOs out there doing these things, many IT leaders are failing to embrace available best practices to improve their people, process, and technology capabilities. There are too many companies and IT leaders still trying to do their jobs the same way they always did them, only with more effort -- even as businesses are expecting more from less. Effective competition in a globalizing world increasingly demands business and IT agility and high performance for success and survival.

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins shows that great companies are typically those with the ability to leverage a highly effective IT organization. Given this correlation, why aren't we IT leaders and our business leaders demanding and willing to pay for high performance out of IT? Is it an issue with leadership and vision? Is it lack of skill and knowledge? Is it generational? Is it risk aversion or missing energy? Is it unavailable talent? While I think there is some "yes" to each of these questions, I think the two key issues are the lack of skill and knowledge in applying high-performance IT practices and the inability of the IT leadership in many companies to link and communicate high-performance behaviors to business value. In addition, the pace of business today runs faster than the pace of implementing high-performance practices. If CIOs can't make a clear case for the value these practices will deliver, business leaders won't have the patience for them. So how do we break out of this trap?

There are habits and practices that enlightened CIOs are employing to adapt to the changing global business landscape, engineer their IT organizations for high performance, position themselves to thrive in the 21st century, and be valuable contributors to business success. While there are no guarantees, and every company may not be able to afford the transformation process or time frame, high-performance IT practices are the future for success-minded CIOs. Can you or your business afford not to head in this direction? Are you, in some way, engaged in leading your organization into the future via the following passions of highly enlightened CIOs?

21st-century CIOs are passionate about ...

1. DE-MASSIFYING AND DRIVING AGILITY

As everyone knows, it's a lot harder to boil an ocean than a cup of water. While some achievements can only be accomplished with giant leaps, for the most part the day-to-day process of achieving goals and objectives, of making progress in building organizations and improving business performance, is done by taking myriad small steps in the right direction. As the pace of business continues to accelerate, the value of long-term planning seems to be diminishing. When I visit companies and assist them with strategy, I've noticed that three-year strategic plans have all but disappeared. Anything over 18 months is understood to be "high-level directional," with most of the attention being given to the next 12 months. Change is the agent here.

Enlightened CIOs realize that it is very difficult to survive putting too many eggs into big, long-term baskets. They understand that underneath today's projects they need to be investing in flexibility, agility, and responsiveness; the ability to change cost-effectively and rapidly is their best bet for long-term investment. If they can't adequately plan and build capability in advance of business needs, their next best option is to ensure that they can quickly serve these needs as they arise -- in the "real time" that business leaders expect, regardless of whether this expectation is fair.

Smart CIOs know that their businesses, especially those that compete globally, are under a lot of pressure to adapt to changing economic and competitive landscapes. We in the IT industry tend to pour a lot of concrete (large legacy environments, information architectures, proprietary systems, custom code, etc.), and when that concrete sets, it takes a lot of time and money to change it.

Investing in more, better, and better-placed expansion joints (modular code, componentized processes, industry standards, configurable software, and common, reusable, and shared services and code) is the best way to ensure that we can quickly and cost-effectively change our concrete.

We are looking at investments in de-massifying and agility when:

-- CIOs drive an investment portfolio approach to projects and investments, have control over work, and have the ability to compare the value of investments that might move the business strategy forward

-- CIOs are modularizing and componentizing their application development methods and inventories as well as their infrastructures -- Projects are taking an iterative or phase-gate approach rather than holding out for big-bang deliveries

-- There are active, ongoing efforts to reduce and eliminate complexity in the IT environment -- reducing the numbers of systems, products used, vendors employed, and variations in methods; simplifying and optimizing processes; and seeking to instill best practices wherever possible, using COBIT, CMMI, ITIL/ITSM, and other models as guides for reducing wasted time and effort and increasing auditability

-- CIOs measure complexity reduction in their environment, employing metrics such as "application portfolio reduction" and "number of services being reused"

An effective process for investment project portfolio management (PPM) has the potential to be one of the largest drivers of agility, complexity reduction, and business value. Few companies have unlimited capital to invest. Few companies can afford to do all the good projects that can be identified. In a fast-paced globalizing world, being able to afford and carry out only great projects would be a huge improvement for most companies. PPM forces us to look at the work we queue up to do, to quantify and compare its value to our strategies, and to identify and prioritize the right work. What most companies find when they go down this rigorous path is that what they are doing (and paying for) is a lot of work that really doesn't move the ball forward; they are using precious capital on the wrong work. For the IT leader being asked to do more with the same or fewer investment dollars, the elimination of bad, marginal, or even good work in favor of great work that is highly linked and aligned to business strategy should be a survival instinct. Good can be the enemy of great. The benefits of focusing the IT effort and spending on work that will be highly appreciated and will improve IT/business alignment can be immediate and huge. Are you driving some form of PPM process in your environment?

2. CULTIVATING PEER BUSINESS RELATIONSHIPS

Ideal CIOs are superior businesspeople who command respect because they "get" the business, they speak the business, and they can lead the business. Whether or not we are those ideal CIOs, the reality is that we live challenged lives in the CIO role for lots of reasons, and we must work hard at building relationships with our business-area peers to transcend the issues that separate us. I believe one reason for the gap is generational. If you are a CIO who is more than 40 years old or so, you have grown up with peers who do not have ubiquitous technology in their DNA. If they weren't passionate about learning about it, they are not, as a generation, likely to "get" IT. Subsequent generations of businesspeople are growing up with technology increasingly everywhere around them, and they assume it to be a part of the way things work and work well. They will struggle with the same cost and pace issues the over-40 generations do, but they will more naturally assume that IT is critical to the way they think about their business.

IT is also unique in its pervasive, horizontal relationship to all functions across the business. The CIO must understand that relationship well to be able to get the job done. The marketing leader's worldview, for example, is first viewed through marketing eyes; technology, if it is a priority at all, is naturally secondary. Successful CIOs must eliminate the expectation or hope that their peers -- even those from younger generations -- will understand technology as deeply as they do. Peers are not likely to have the time or the interest in understanding the complexities that exist with technology. Consequently, 21st-century CIOs must be diligent in spending time building trust and personal credibility in order to overcome the natural gaps that exist. They also know that their peers don't want a CIO to be their teacher but their teammate. Avoid distancing yourself from your peers by putting a teacher/student relationship model in place. Spend time with them, and they will learn from you as they do. Are you viewed by your peers as a businessperson or technologist? When was the last time you took your CFO to dinner?

3. EXECUTING ON BOTH OF THEIR FULL-TIME JOBS

CIOs live in two different worlds. If there is a root expectation that the business has for the CIO and IT, it is that the machinery must keep running. Systems must run, be available, and be responsive. Even better, IT must be predictable. Living in the age of the Internet, we all compete at some level with Amazon.com and the assumption of uptime 24/7/365. If you don't meet that basic expectation, regardless of the reason, your credibility will suffer. I learned this lesson the hard way in a previous CIO role. I inherited a technology environment steeped in legacy systems that could not be changed to meet the pace of dynamic change and high growth. I invested resources in creating the technology and people capability that could handle it, but the noise from systems that broke under the strain of growth forced a reprioritization. The pain of today trumps the greater pain of tomorrow.

Operational "table stakes" aside, your other full-time job is even more critical. The 21st-century CIO must be a business leader. Being a business leader is about both preparing the field on which the business battles will be fought and preparing the landscape and the IT team for success. It's about being appropriately reactive, ideally proactive, but even more so predictive, to ensure IT has the path in place the moment the business needs to step on it. You need your peers to see you being proficient in this second role. If you don't like having two jobs, then you should probably start thinking about doing something else. How do you spend your day?

4.SEEKING TOP TALENT AND BUILDING GREAT TEAMS

Smart CIOs know their strengths and weaknesses and build teams that complement themselves. There are rumors that the role of the CIO in complex organizations is no longer a one-person job. It's true. Enlightened CIOs know that the only way they can hope for success is to build a team that helps them get the job done. As the business world optimizes its way to the future, the global war for IT talent is back. And as the economic environment improves, with an increasing need for technology in globalizing businesses and fewer students entering university computer science programs, the war will become increasingly acute. Attracting, motivating, and retaining great talent is a core competency that CIOs must address. In Good to Great, Collins uses the metaphor of "getting the right people on the bus." He notes that the right "who" will help you succeed with the right "what," even if you don't know what that is when you begin the journey.

A CIO cannot possibly make success happen alone. Passionate, talented, self-motivated, smart people are needed to help craft the future and help get the critical-mass flywheel turning and changing directions when necessary. Do you have a talent management process in place in your organization? Are your incentives aligned with what you hope to achieve? What are you doing to remove the roadblocks in front of your stars and allies, and what are you doing to get more of them on your team? Remember also that the world we live in, including that of our customers, is getting more diverse. Are you working to build diversity of thinking and culture into the fabric of your capabilities?

See next month's issue for the conclusion of "The Nine Passions of Enlightened CIOs"

Patrick E. Moroney is President of The Barnier Group LLC, an IT consulting, services, and staffing firm. He has been a business leader and IT professional for 26 years, with 10 years' experience in large-cap CIO roles. In 2006 he was named one of ComputerWorld's Top 100 CIOs in the U.S. and helped his IT organization at Health Care Service Corp. achieve the #21 spot in the magazine's Top 100 Best IT Workplaces in 2005. "The Nine Passions of Enlightened CIOs" first appeared in The Cutter IT Journal, published by The Cutter Consortium (www.cutter.com).

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