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Playing it safe

Playing it safe

Hard times require some compromises, so when our writer set to work with his fictional firm's CFO, he kept the expectations realistic.

The middle of a global financial crisis is a bad time for nasty surprises, so my heart leaped into my mouth when I walked into my monthly catch-up with the chief executive and found our chief financial officer, Frank, there too. "I have to offshore some jobs without being eaten alive by the media," the CEO said. "I won't have the time to be a decent manager while that's going on and you deserve better than that. So I've decided you'll be reporting to Frank from now on. You two play nicely."

And before either of us could get in another word, he left.

But what were we to play at? And what were the rules? After the usual pleasantries, I decided to be as honest as possible. I was going to tell it straight, whatever the consequences, so I opened with a bland, friendly question about the CFO's expectations of technology.

"The thing I keep hearing is that most of you in IT don't really add value," Frank replied. "It's all about keeping the place running, fighting fires and such."

"We call it keeping the lights on," I confirmed.

"Well, I wonder why that's the case," he said. "You're about 15 per cent of the head count and 20 per cent of the payroll, so I feel like we should get more value from you than a caretaker function, especially at a time when the whole business is tightening its belt."

"I agree 100 per cent," I said. "But we won't help out."

"Excuse me?" Frank asked, incredulously.

I replied, "Remember how last year you signed off on $1 million for new disk drives? Well, the people who make storage hardware have rigged it so we can only ever use about a third of the stuff we buy."

"How can that be?"

"Simple," I said. "You wanted a two-day close for the monthly accounts. To do that, we need fast, powerful computers. In order to make sure they are fast and powerful, they have to have lots of spare storage capacity. Filling the disks up would just slow things down."

Frank looked worried. "Can't we buy computers that don't do this?"

"No," I answered. "Every product we ever buy comes with some hidden gotcha that either wastes our resources, makes extra work or somehow erodes the time we can spend being innovative."

Useless work

"You're having me on," Frank said. "This is the gag the CIO club plays on the non-technical new guy, right?"

"Far from it," I assured him. "It's a bit like the way every new tax ruling makes work for your team without improving the business. Every new item we buy to save money just adds more complexity or has some weird requirement that creates more useless work. But if we don't buy it, everyone screams."

"So buy different products," he suggested. "You're the chief information officer. Aren't you supposed to be able to figure out the good technology, to nip this in the bud?"

"Yes and no," I replied. "I'm supposed to be able to weed out the duds and, often, I do. But in general there's nothing better out there. We already buy the best, or try to buy the least bad. Either that or we buy from the vendors who roll over fastest when we growl at them."

Frank thought a moment.

"Let's say that, by some miracle, you're able to claw back 10 per cent of IT costs this year," he said. "What kind of innovation would that unleash?"

"None," I replied, and kept going before the finance chief's scowl could develop further. "Here's why: Your team has, what? A couple of stars who want your job, some folks so inexperienced it's too early to say if they'll be any good and a lot of plodders."

This was close enough to the truth and earned me a nod.

"It's the same in my team, too," I said. "The stars are shining and the plodders are keeping the lights on. So even if they all had a spare hour a day, they've just got the wrong skill set to innovate.

"It's pure Darwinism. Those who keep things working get jobs in-house.

Innovators work for consultants. And I'm betting that even if we fired 10 per cent of my team, there's no way we could go and hire consultants."

This, at last, caused Frank to express some sympathy.

"So what are we going to do?" he asked in an exasperated tone.

"We're all expected to save money this year. I'm supposed to manage you, but you're telling me that IT is unmanageable because even your waste is indispensable."

"Tell you what," I said. "Let's both keep the lights on as well as we can and make sure our jobs are done, and done well. The last thing anyone needs at a time like this is any more nasty surprises."

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Tags strategy. opinionCIO rolefinancecio and cfo

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