The way to break free

The way to break free

An information chief's life can be similar to the cycle endured by Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day. Here are three options for a way out.

There is a universality to many aspects of the roles performed by chief information officers. Dictated by technology trends and strongly influenced by IT vendors, CIOs often find themselves following the dots, working to a pre-written script that sets out the initiatives they should be pursuing. Often they find themselves carrying out exactly the same types of projects as their colleagues in totally different business sectors. For some CIOs, this can be less than satisfying. Those seeking to break free may find the following approaches helpful.

1 . Strive to attain exceptional business sector knowledge – just like the best professional services firms do.

At an abstract level, the IT organisation is a professional services firm, albeit one with a singular, though vitally important client. Service delivery aspects aside, the best professional services firms seek to become leading lights in their field through the acquisition of significant expertise in their chosen business sectors. As a consequence, their opinions are sought and new business opportunities realised. Among other methods, the CIO can become a business sector expert, and perhaps a thought leader, by:

  • Gathering intelligence on what other organisations in the sector (especially those at the top of their game) are doing, whether locally or internationally;
  • Identifying who is providing leading thinking on problems and opportunities in the sector (whether it is business writers, academics or IT firms), assimilating what they have to say and processing its relevance to the organisation;
  • Being active in professional development events that may occur within the sector.
One of the most common questions board members ask in presentations is what the competition is doing. Unfortunately, many CIOs can be wrong-footed in this regard. Having competitor intelligence (preferably with a world view), coupled with deep business sector experience can propel a CIO from order taker to respected idea generator.

2. Selectively, choose to be a contrarian thinker – having earned the right to do so.

Group thinking often predominates during decision-making at senior executive levels with the powerful and opinionated holding sway. Too often, the absence of a credible, dissenting voice can lead to undesirable and perhaps costly consequences. Recently, the deputy vice-chancellor of one of Australia's leading universities announced that 64 different student administration systems used across its various campuses and faculties had been retired and replaced with just one system. A reasonable question to ask may have been what impact this decision had on the efficacy of some of the smaller business units that had been shoe-horned into a corporate system.

The GFC and cost-effective telecommunications services have hastened the trend for "one global instance" style of enterprise resource planning implementations. Ostensibly beneficial to the corporate bottom line, some client engagements have identified user discomfort with these ventures and the invocation of workarounds, including the establishment of user developed shadow systems, have added costs and reduced staff ­productivity.

Sometimes big is not best; sometimes low-cost options incur undesirable downstream consequences. CIOs can a play a major role in questioning planned business initiatives, albeit with some caveats. First, the right to be at the decision-making table must be earned and this can be gained through successful delivery of one or more business-enabling projects coupled with evidence of the ability to think in business rather than technology terms.

Secondly, rather than taking a negative position on planned business initiatives, CIOs should strive to work on a scenario planning basis putting forth various alternatives, their implications and consequences. In this way the CIO avoids being coloured as a negative thinker, but rather as a thoughtful, organisationally-focused executive.

3 . Become an evangelist for IT portfolio management – but do your homework first.

To some this may seem as a surprise inclusion. However, many CIOs and other senior executives give airplay to IT portfolio management without actually putting it into effective practice. At its very core, portfolio management is concerned with achieving the right balance across IT projects and assets that best suits the organisation at that point in time. While various methodologies exist (and this is where it is necessary to do the homework), most IT portfolios can be segregated into four components according to the contribution they make to the organisation.

These are:

  • Maintain the business;
  • Improve the business;
  • Grow the business;
  • Transform the business.

The author is an adviser with IBRS. Email comments to

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