To connect the dots in IT delivery, talk to a CIO

There’s no substitute for experience, especially when it comes to recognizing value in information technology – and knowing how to make the most of it. The big corporations have written the book on what to do and what not to do in computing, and smaller businesses shouldn’t be afraid to take a page from it. Big businesses have made the investments, endured the expensive failures and reaped the rewards throughout decades of hit and miss IT projects – from mainframes, to client/server, to Web-enablement – in the continuing effort to build today’s world of highly distributed computing.

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When seeking mentors to help steer their IT projects, smaller businesses should look no further than to those who are the top managers of IT in large corporations – the chief information officer or CIO, the front-line, seasoned correspondents in many a battle with IT. To truly understand how to manage expectations and recognize necessary payoffs in IT, talk to a CIO. It’s their job to ultimately “connect the dots” between computing’s real capabilities and what’s absolutely important for the business.

The CIO is the techno-arbiter; continually conferring with other C-level execs trying to figure out what a business is all about, where it needs to go and how IT can get it there. More often than not, the CIO is the one individual with the most influence when it comes to major IT purchases by large corporations. That means they’d better get it right most of the time. Their experience is gold and their word could be gospel to those not so savvy in the ways of business computing.

What have CIOs learned about making IT investments? An ITWorldCanada reader’s survey late last year of more than 250 Canadian top IT executives within large businesses suggests a whole lot. Smaller businesses would do well to heed the CIO experience in considering their own plans, since the lessons learned by the big corporations and their CIOs should similarly apply to those who are doing similar jobs in much smaller companies.

For example, what do many top managers of information technology in large business say when it comes to identifying the greatest inhibitor to their effectiveness as champions of computing? Unrealistic and/or unknown business expectations in terms of what information technology can do for a business, say senior IT professionals, is among the biggest problems they face.

Even in large companies, there can exist a discerning lack of knowledge about what computing can and should provide for the corporation. CIOs wrestle with user perceptions that run the gamut. There are those business users who believe that IT is a panacea and should provide everything a business needs to make it successful. Other users truly don’t know what to expect, and are apt to consider computing a void – a necessary, but grudgingly accepted business expense that reaps little or no measurable value. Both views task the CIO to educate them about the reality of IT – that technology can do some things, but not everything.

In other words, CIOs are the voice of reason as well as the tech gurus. In fact, the ITWorldCanada survey respondents cited the ability to effectively communicate with other senior business managers, the ability to be strategic thinkers and planners, and an overall understanding of business processes and operations as the key attributes for a CIO’s success. The survey’s results suggest CIOs believe “Job One” for them is to ensure that IT successfully becomes the underpinning of organizational strategy and business competitiveness.

Throughout many years of experience in purchasing IT and implementing technology, and managing the operation of business information systems, CIOs have learned that IT should never work in isolation.

As senior IT professional Sav DiPasquale, vice-president IT and CIO for pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline Inc., put it: “It is imperative that IT focus and align its efforts to the most important priorities and objectives of the business [itself], or it will fail. Doing so will ensure that IT is a credible and valued business partner at the table, driving business success.”

Alex Federucci, a CIO for Talisman Energy, added that, “understanding business challenges and opportunities is critical” when making investments in IT for business. The two go hand-in-hand.

The important lesson learned by big business, which smaller companies should heed, is that you need a clear understanding of what business is about prior to purchasing IT. Simply put: know your business and you’ll know what IT you’ll need to buy.

And think strategically. Consider how investments in technology made today will benefit the company in the future. That’s how successful CIOs think. Smaller companies are apt to think a lot more tactically, looking to solve an immediate issue rather than to much consider what also might emerge as even more important down the road. Invest in technology that is tactical and strategic.

Experience has taught CIOs within large companies that too narrow a consideration of technology investment is money poorly spent, since the lifespan of that poor choice can be much too short. And poor IT investment decisions can lead to even shorter CIO careers.

And experience has taught big business that it cannot be unfocused and wasteful. Neither can smaller companies. Just ask a CIO.

–This article appeared in The Globe and Mail on March 3, 2005.

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