The Nine Passions of Enlightened CIOs

Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat has finally disappeared from the Top Ten books list, but for more than a year it was a must-read for anyone interested in understanding what is happening in global business these days and how globalization is impacting our lives and our children’s lives. That said, the book really was more of a current-state/future-state snapshot of globalization. Friedman wrote an earlier book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, that really uncovered the roots of globalization and described how capital markets have been rewired over the past 15 years. That book discusses the changes that have occurred to the very underpinnings of business, explores our growing global economic interdependence, and explains why the future business landscape is unlikely to ever resemble the good old days again.

This new world order has been evolving since around 1990 or so, and we in the IT industry have responded to it with such efforts, fads, buzzwords, and new technologies as reengineering, the Internet, outsourcing, optimization, virtualization, and many others. However, we really have not seen the changes enabled by these new technologies and evolving global business needs holistically – as a call for new ways of doing business – and we certainly have not rallied ourselves as a profession to rethink the way we extract value from technology in our businesses. We should be moving quickly away from inflexible legacy environments, modularizing and componentizing our business processes and technology services, perfecting global talent and services sourcing, and engineering service levels and metrics into our operations as a means of improving delivery consistency. High-performance IT is all about high service predictability and reliability – delivering on time, on budget, on scope, and on quality – and effective planning that allows IT to flexibly deliver capability when the business needs it.

While there are highly enlightened CIOs out there doing these things, many IT leaders are failing to embrace available best practices to improve their people, process, and technology capabilities. There are too many companies and IT leaders still trying to do their jobs the same way they always did them, only with more effort – even as businesses are expecting more from less. Effective competition in a globalizing world increasingly demands business and IT agility and high performance for success and survival.

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins shows that great companies are typically those with the ability to leverage a highly effective IT organization. Given this correlation, why aren’t we IT leaders and our business leaders demanding and willing to pay for high performance out of IT? Is it an issue with leadership and vision? Is it lack of skill and knowledge? Is it generational? Is it risk aversion or missing energy? Is it unavailable talent? While I think there is some “yes” to each of these questions, I think the two key issues are the lack of skill and knowledge in applying high-performance IT practices and the inability of the IT leadership in many companies to link and communicate high-performance behaviors to business value. In addition, the pace of business today runs faster than the pace of implementing high-performance practices. If CIOs can’t make a clear case for the value these practices will deliver, business leaders won’t have the patience for them. So how do we break out of this trap?

There are habits and practices that enlightened CIOs are employing to adapt to the changing global business landscape, engineer their IT organizations for high performance, position themselves to thrive in the 21st century, and be valuable contributors to business success. While there are no guarantees, and every company may not be able to afford the transformation process or time frame, high-performance IT practices are the future for success-minded CIOs. Can you or your business afford not to head in this direction? Are you, in some way, engaged in leading your organization into the future via the following passions of highly enlightened CIOs?

21st-century CIOs are passionate about …


As everyone knows, it’s a lot harder to boil an ocean than a cup of water. While some achievements can only be accomplished with giant leaps, for the most part the day-to-day process of achieving goals and objectives, of making progress in building organizations and improving business performance, is done by taking myriad small steps in the right direction. As the pace of business continues to accelerate, the value of long-term planning seems to be diminishing. When I visit companies and assist them with strategy, I’ve noticed that three-year strategic plans have all but disappeared. Anything over 18 months is understood to be “high-level directional,” with most of the attention being given to the next 12 months. Change is the agent here.

Enlightened CIOs realize that it is very difficult to survive putting too many eggs into big, long-term baskets. They understand that underneath today’s projects they need to be investing in flexibility, agility, and responsiveness; the ability to change cost-effectively and rapidly is their best bet for long-term investment. If they can’t adequately plan and build capability in advance of business needs, their next best option is to ensure that they can quickly serve these needs as they arise – in the “real time” that business leaders expect, regardless of whether this expectation is fair.

Smart CIOs know that their businesses, especially those that compete globally, are under a lot of pressure to adapt to changing economic and competitive landscapes. We in the IT industry tend to pour a lot of concrete (large legacy environments, information architectures, proprietary systems, custom code, etc.), and when that concrete sets, it takes a lot of time and money to change it.

Investing in more, better, and better-placed expansion joints (modular code, componentized processes, industry standards, configurable software, and common, reusable, and shared services and code) is the best way to ensure that we can quickly and cost-effectively change our concrete.

We are looking at investments in de-massifying and agility when:

• CIOs drive an investment portfolio approach to projects and investments, have control over work, and have the ability to compare the value of investments that might move the business strategy forward

• CIOs are modularizing and componentizing their application development methods and inventories as well as their infrastructures • Projects are taking an iterative or phase-gate approach rather than holding out for big-bang deliveries

• There are active, ongoing efforts to reduce and eliminate complexity in the IT environment – reducing the numbers of systems, products used, vendors employed, and variations in methods; simplifying and optimizing processes; and seeking to instill best practices wherever possible, using COBIT, CMMI

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