A decade ago, the classic CIO role centered around implementing business processes using computing power. Today, that fallacy isn't in vogue anymore. It's now important for the CIO to concentrate on business outcomes more than anything else. A CIO should be more concerned about transforming the business and defining business rules. To do so, they have to shed their 'IT gatekeeper' tags and take on the role of a business strategist.
There are two parts to a CIO's life: one is the 'necessary' and the other is the 'sufficiency' part. It is necessary to be a gatekeeper for IT and look after servers, applications, and uptime. For example, an element of my necessary job is to take care of 2,000 servers, over 2,000TB of data, 8GB of bandwidth and a 2,000-strong IT team. However, as a CIO, I have to do more. That's where the sufficiency bit comes in. That's where I find myself today. By sticking, merely, to the necessary part of the job, an IT leader can't be called a CIO and cannot claim a seat on a management table and work with CEOs. It's the sufficiency part that CIOs must worry about.
Here's how we can become business strategists.
Be a Sport, Wear Other Hats
To evolve to business strategists, CIOs need to adhere to a few rules. One, they should, in addition to their current role, take on additional functions. In my early days at Bharti-Airtel, I was responsible for launching a new business unit -- a P&L (profit & loss) responsibility -- in addition to being CIO. I ran Airtel Enterprise Services for a year and today it is one of the three business units that reflects in Airtel's balance sheet.
Or take the marketing role I continue to play. I am responsible for business development and alliances with strategic partners. I am a CIO, but I am responsible for launching new products. In the past, these have come in the form of deals with RIM for Blackberry, with Apple for the iPhone and other alliances with Microsoft and Google. Most recently, I was in charge of a deal with Infosys for Airtel's DTH platform. This role is purely marketing and business development. I've also added customer service to my role. This makes me responsible for call centers, billing, collection, payment, provisioning and activation and almost 40,000 people. My point is that the best way a CIO can evolve as a business strategist is to take on adjunct business responsibilities. These naturally create learning opportunities, thus opening up a chance to become a strategist.
If you want to be a business strategist, wearing a pure technology hat will not help. It requires a huge amount of drive, conviction and great deal of both internal and external marketing skills.
Build Management Trust
To open up these chances to take up new responsibility, a CIO needs to win the trust of his management. But how? By showing them that you are a leader. CIOs can do this in two ways: one, by showing them your track record and showing how you demonstrated leadership skills in other parts of your career. The second approach is by building new capabilities to handle business matters. In my first stint at IBM, I was a technology researcher but also created a business unit to launch rich Internet media products. When I went to Bell South (AT&T), my first role was that of a CTO but my second role was marketing where I ran a portfolio of emerging alliances -- all new businesses. When I joined Bharti, I used these experiences to show the management that I had a natural proclivity for additional business responsibilities.
Start With Costs
To grow as business strategists, CIOs should have perfected the skills of crunching business numbers, revenue numbers and have honed their negotiation skills. Today, the toughest part of being a CIO is making choices. You can't make these choices unless you can crunch numbers. Take for example, the creation of the IBM Utility Model. I was only able to create that because I knew how to do financial modeling. It was done in tight collaboration with the group CFO but if I didn't have commercial orientation, there was no way I could have created this model.
For those who are not number oriented, start with the belly of the organization: cost. That's the natural place to begin. A CIO must understand cost before he starts talking about revenue. Business process digitization has a direct correlation to cost and it makes sense to start from there. How do you build efficiencies and productivity into your information tools? How do you empower your staff so that they are far more productive? How do you work on service models that are directly related to cost? Once CIOs understands these, then they can start worrying about revenues. Except in cases where revenues come from IT products, this is a model to follow.
Learn to Merge
It is critical and almost non-negotiable to be heard by management if you want to be a business strategist. A CIO who gets lost in a layer below top management will get little chance to become a strategist. But there are many CIOs who find themselves far from success despite many attempts to mark their presence at management meetings. It's important to remember that while sitting at a management table you can't wear the CIO hat. Wear your management hat and talk about matters like employee development, HR issues, new business opportunities and strategies. It's what I have done and I'm part of the Airtel Management Board.
Create Process and Then Innovate
CIOs must get into business process definition. At Airtel, we wanted to undergo an organizational transformation. We called the project 'E-Tize'. It started during early 2007. The business processes around E-Tize were written by my team and I. We looked at over 130 business processes and developed over 30 major software modules and wrote over 200 applications. Today, E-Tize clocks over half a million transactions a month (all internal), has 15,000 log-ins every day and 20,000 users. It uses 150 servers, 750 CPUs and 150TB of storage. It has already saved us over a 1,000 trees worth of paper. This straightaway resulted into a 30 to 40 percent reduction in our operational expenditure. This is an example of how business process transformation can come from IT and make the internal organization more efficient.
This is where CIOs can start, by helping define business processes. After that, CIOs need to look for innovations that IT can assist with and jump on these opportunities to produce new products and thus new revenue streams. CIOs should not think of themselves as back office guys. The problem with Indian enterprises is that CIOs are typically misunderstood as back office people who manage the ERP. That stigma has to go.
Read the Customer's Pulse
It is because CIOs think of themselves as back office people that they are far removed from an organization's customers. To be a good strategist, a CIO must understand the business and it is impossible to do that without being close to the customer. I can't recommend one single remedy to get there. It's up to CIOs to do it formally or informally, whether it is part of their job role or not. But, if they don't, then they will just be lost in servers and software and won't understand what they're trying to achieve. This exposure doesn't have to be done on a full-time basis but it must be done regularly. In my case, I have enormous internal customer engagement. In terms of external customers, I listen in to the call center calls. I have also launched a program called 'Customer Pulse' that demands everyone in IT to call five customers every month for their feedback. Customers are an incredible source of information -- which is useful for business process transformation.
At Airtel, we are on our way to being present in 400,000 villages and unless we understand what our customers there want, we can't deliver better products. In fact, I am visiting some villages next week (while this was being written) as part of our direct customer engagement program. I talk to a lot of enterprise customers, too, about their bandwidth provisioning or management. It is important for CIOs to connect with their customers or they won't be able to understand the business' pulse. You've got to feel the pulse of the customer to reduce their pain.
In the current paradigm, though, this is tough to do. Technologists and IT professionals have been trained to worry about technology and let the business worry about the customer. The language that IT professionals use is 'IT' and possibly 'business'. They hardly ever use the word 'customer'. This will require a great cultural change. And there are only two ways to do it. One, because you feel it is necessary to do, is to simply go ahead and do it. The other way is to create a mandate. I can bet that most CIOs will find this hard and very challenging.
This is why I believe CIOs must undergo training and learn different roles before they come back to head IT. The next generation of CIOs can be appointed to the top position only after they have undergone these experiences. And that's a problem because these experiences don't come automatically. You need to have a string of experiences to develop these skills. If someone aspires to be a CIO, he or she has to ensure that they undergo a rotation of job roles. It's important to remember that you can't live in your comfort zones.
There are two parts to this: how do we reshape the current generation and how do we create the next generation of CIOs. It is easier to create the next generation because you can mandate that no IT professional can fill a CIO's shoes until he or she has gone through a rigorous process of understanding cost and revenue modeling. It's the current CIOs with whom its a little tough. In some cases, enterprises can institute learning programs or have joint projects. It is not necessary only to have internal and external mentors. CIOs can learn a great deal with peers from within the industry.
-- As told to Rahul Neel Mani
Dr. Jai Menon is director technology and customer service Bharti Airtel and Group CIO of Bharti Enterprises.
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