CIO speaks frankly about IBM

IBM Corp. explored the results of its global CIO survey over an early breakfast meeting with Canadian CIOs this week at a Frankly Speaking event in Toronto. On stage to discuss the findings were Hugh Cumming, CIO of ADP Canada, and Paul Bellack, partner and national practice leader of Technology Strategy at IBM Canada.

The survey, the largest of its kind according to Bellack, interviewed more than 2,500 CIOs in 78 countries and 19 industries around the world. The intent of the survey was to find out how CIOs spend their time, he said, and the value of the results is the ability to give structure to the CIO role.

CIOs perform six different roles within an organization, according to IBM, which developed a CIO paradigm based on the results of the study. The model, which forms the shape of a helix, serves as a good next-generation job description, according to Bellack.

IBM groups the six roles into three pairs: the insight visionary / able pragmatist; the savvy value creator / relentless cost cutter; and the collaborative business leader / inspiring IT manager. The first role in each set falls under the business mindset, while the second role is focused on IT. 

CIOs are in a “split personality” situation, according to Bellack, with three pairs of roles that both “compliment and contradict” each other. It’s hard to be a visionary and a pragmatist at the same time and that’s really what complicates the role of the CIO, he said.

A second interesting point that resulted from the study was the metric developed by IBM to determine an organization’s effectiveness, noted Bellack. IBM divided survey participants into high, medium or low growth segments based on their organization’s profit before tax (PBT).

The metric found that the more successful the company, the wider the role of the CIO, said Bellack. In high growth organizations, CIOs are much more stretched across the business facing roles; whereas in low growth organizations, the emphasis focuses on tactical and IT-focused activities, he said.

When measuring CIO performance, project execution and IT cost effectiveness were high on the list in high PBT growth organizations; in lower growth organizations, the key performance criteria was delivering technology stability, said Bellack.

The point is that CIOs behave differently depending on whether they represent high or low growth companies, said Bellack. While the shape may be different, this basic premise is the same in any sector and any country, he said.

High performance companies have a naturally energy to them that demand “a certain amount of agility out of all of those roles,” said Cumming.

“In a high performance company, there is more time to explore ideas, so I think the role migrates itself naturally to being one where people are looking at every opportunity and that really is one of the great opportunities as a CIO of a company that is profitable,” he said. 

While high growth companies provide the opportunity to have meaningful discussions with business executives about the value that technology can bring to the table, conversations within companies less able to fund and source strategic investments will tend to focus on taking cost out of the business, he pointed out.

Representing the perspective of a CIO at a high growth company, Cumming believes the conflict within the CIO role sounds greater than it actually is.

“One of the values that we bring is the relentless cost cutter, but from the perspective of how do I better align my IT spend with the business, I create opportunities for strategic investments out of my portfolio of IT services,” he said.

Cumming suggested starting “with what the business is trying to do and then find the savings that help the business make those investments. It’s a slightly different way of looking at those two and then they become more compatible.”

When his role began at ADP five years ago, it was very focused on “IT as back office, go-fix-what’s-broke,’” said Cumming. “One of the things that struck me was that the relationship of the business was very much one of, ‘We’ll come to you, don’t come to us,’ and that’s been something that is hard work to get through.”

“Part of getting through that is establishing a foundation of trust,” he continued. “You really can’t get to the table until people aren’t asking questions about the basic mechanisms and the basic functions of IT, so the only way to have a meaningful discussion with the business is stopping all those other discussions about e-mail and product availability and uptime.”

In addition to getting “the basics of IT done,” CIOs also need to “earn the right to sit at the business table,” said Bellack. “You’ve got to be able to describe the business model … to understand the business as a business executive as opposed to an IT executive to earn the respect of your colleagues.”

But there is more to understanding the business than just “being able to talk about how the business runs,” added Cumming. “The metrics is something I feel is so critical to the success of IT, but really being able to produce metrics that are relevant to the business people … demonstrates to them that you truly do understand what drives the business.”

According to IBM’s survey, 55 per cent of CIOs are spending their time on activities that spur innovations and help the business.

CIOs were largely measured on IT in the past, but this measurement is shifting strongly to the business side, noted Cumming. “To be successful as a CIO, you have to be a relevant innovator and visionary to the business and that’s really a challenge,” he said. 

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