CIOs face hot cross fire

Keith Powell, former chief information officer (CIO) at Nortel Networks Ltd., said the company’s former president and CEO John Roth maintained a hands-off approach to internal mediation that sometimes led to bun fights between business and IT.

“Roth really didn’t help me in the brokering capacity,” Powell said. “When tough decisions had to be made, he really left it up to me and the business units to fight it out.”

A firm’s CIO should act as a sort of “honest broker” – an executive that understands business needs as well as the limitations of technology and is able to integrate the former with the latter. But according to IT consultant Jim Metzler, the CIO cannot attain this peacemaker status if the CEO isn’t sympathetic to the task.

“I think it’s an important issue, who the CIO reports to,” Metzler said, adding that the problem comes down to a lack of communication between IT and business units just as Powell’s situation at Nortel illustrated.

But it’s also a problem bred of two disparate yet instrumental schools of thought, said Metzler. “We have great business schools. We have great engineering schools. We don’t do a good job of training people to do both.”

Metzler, the keynote speaker at a CIO Summit meeting yesterday in Toronto, was on hand to discuss that long-standing battle and teach an audience of CIOs how to play the part of honest broker between business and technology.

The meeting was held at the Toronto Board of Trade and hosted by Avaya Inc., the network component maker from Basking Ridge, N.J. Powell, the former Nortel CIO, was one of the audience members.

Aside from relying on sympathetic superiors, CIOs can build the bridge between IT and business units as long as they maintain a high level of political credibility in the workplace, Metzler said. If IT projects fail, the CIO could find it difficult to win capital for future tech endeavours.

“These folks are on a treadmill,” he said. CIOs often face that daunting query: “What have you done for me lately?” If the answer boils down to a failed voice-over IP (VoIP) implementation or other network enhancements that demonstrate more investment than return, the purse string holders lose confidence in the CIO’s vision.

So how do the chief tech heads maintain political clout? To start, Metzler suggested they should understand new technologies.

For the moment, business leaders are more interested in voice applications than data apps, Metzler said, and it’s important for CIOs to recognize the apps du jour. They would be wise to learn about VoIP, network convergence, unified messaging (UM) and other topics that “satisfy the treadmill,” he said.

But honest brokers take IT buzzwords with a grain of salt, Metzler advised. “Outsourcing,” for example, is not as simple as it’s purported to be. Just because one or another part of the business resides beyond the corporation’s walls, that’s not to say CIOs can ignore them.

The CIO must have a level of knowledge about the resource, particularly outsourced IT resources, in order to manage service providers properly, Metzler said. That suggests a prime understanding of the firm’s needs and the service provider’s limitations, as well as a deep knowledge of corporate and technology issues.

Metzler said a high level of political capital and an understanding of upcoming technologies should help CIOs halt the bun fights between business and IT. But Powell, now the managing director at Toronto-based high-tech investment firm XPV Capital Corp., said Metzler’s argument is stale.

“I was dealing with those issues seven years ago, and here’s a guy in 2002 talking about the same things,” Powell said. “Either he’s behind the times or the IT community has not moved its agenda forward in the business environment.”

But Ian Davies saw the presentation differently. As the manager of technology at Delcan Corp., a Toronto-based engineering management firm, he is the de facto honest broker at work. Davies said trust is instrumental in the CIO’s task, and that Metzler’s message was all about trust.

“There’s a very strong dependency on trust, to ensure we’re doing the right things in the right time. You have to be able to trust the people you deal with on a business basis and a technology basis. If you don’t have that, it’s just not going to get done.”