Bring on the scrutiny

Pop quiz: In a climate where regulations affecting data protection, customer privacy and financial reporting are on the increase, which answer best describes how CIOs should view their new oversight duties?

A. As a compliment.

B. As an opportunity.

C. As a career-enhancing responsibility.

D. As all of the above.

Yes, you read those choices correctly, and yes, the answer is D. I couldn’t have been more surprised, but that’s what I heard last week during a panel discussion on “The Scrutinized CIO” at a Society for Information Managers (SIM) executive summit in Chicago.

“I take (the scrutiny) as a compliment and an opportunity,” said Frank Modruson, CIO and managing partner at Accenture Ltd. “Internal IT investments are large and important for the business. This gives us a forum to talk about where we’re investing and how we’re driving the company forward.”

“I don’t mind the scrutiny. It helps position me with my peers,” added Cathy Brune, CTO and senior vice president at Allstate Insurance. “All executives are being scrutinized now. If I will sit and take it — and change my organization as needed — that gives me the right to do a little scrutiny on the other side, too.”

Indeed, many senior IT leaders may find themselves reporting not only to the CFO but also on him, and on how well company finances measure up in the new regulatory climate. “All of us are thinking differently about where the money is spent,” said Brune. “We’re looking at all the transaction flows.”

As we noted in a recent story, some CEOs and CFOs are turning to IT organizations to certify the systems used in processing financial data. New accounting acronyms like SAS 70, an auditing standard, are becoming part of the IT lexicon, and that ever-elusive goal of aligning business and IT seems (dare we hope?) closer than ever. After years of struggling to foster tight relationships between technology and business execs, who would have expected Uncle Sam to step in as the matchmaker? But there you have it.

Of course, the scrutiny extends beyond financial records into the equally business-critical areas of customer privacy and data protection.

“Privacy, security and confidentiality should be on all of our radar screens, and CIOs should be leading here,” said John Moon, CIO at Baxter International Inc. and a speaker at the SIM summit. He noted that while IT at the health care and pharmaceutical giant this year has been all about “driving efficiencies and reducing expenses,” next year the focus will shift to “enabling business change and growth.”

That shift isn’t just happening at Baxter, Allstate and Accenture. Everywhere that IT executives gather these days, the talk centers not only on mitigating risks, but also on enabling business change. And however gradually it’s improving, the economy seems to be cooperating as it heads upward. In line with the findings of other market researchers, Forrester Research recently polled 818 North American companies and predicted overall IT spending growth of 4 percent next year. Topping the list of spending plans were “risk mitigation strategies” in security and disaster recovery, but e-commerce initiatives with supply chain partners also ranked right up there as a top priority.

Leading IT organizations are evolving from cost centers and service providers into strategic partners and enablers. “I can see the push everywhere now to converse about IT as an enabler of the business,” said Allstate’s Brune.

So bring on the scrutiny, and watch IT rise to the occasion.