Wanted: snake killers to fill CIO shoes

IOs have no choice but to get on the same page as the rest of their organization’s management team – but understanding and adapting IT strategies to an overall company vision is trickier than it sounds.

That was one of the points discussed by two guests in a recent panel sponsored by IT World Canada (publisher of ComputerWorld Canada). The discussion explored some of the key challenges for today’s CIO, and how to address them while satisfying both technology and business needs.

One of the problems CIOs face daily is the mental separation between IT and business.

According to panelist Ron Schwartz, management consulting partner with IBM Business Consulting Services in Markham, Ont., CIOs are expected to effectively handle the IT organization while at the same time making sure their plans are in line with business strategies, and those can change quickly from one day to the next.

The key is finding a middle ground, “a sweet spot – and everyone is strugging with how to get in the middle,” Schwartz said.

“Killing the snakes,” or getting rid of seemingly brilliant IT projects that are bound to fail because they only have lukewarm support from upper management is an often painful, yet necessary step, according to Don Parker, interim CIO with the IT department at Toronto-based Shoppers Drug Mart.

There has to be a solid business reason for it, he said, one connected to the bottom line.

“You’ve got to stomp out those projects that are technology-driven only….It’ll make your lives a lot easier,” Parker advised.

Whereas CIOs used to attain their positions based on some foundation of technological capacity, their skill expectations are now shifting, said Schwartz.

“A CIO needs to be a politician, a financial visionary, a deal-maker…and if they are technology-grounded, that’s good too,” he said, adding that many CIOs wrestle with how to acquire the skills they don’t have.

Not being able to see things through the eyes of the rest of the management team leads to a lack of communication – “something we cope with all the time,” said Parker.

Things might be going fine one day, but then, “there’s a change in strategy or shareholders, and that disconnect suddenly appears.”

Whereas the rest of the executive team tends to move quickly, and is typically more responsive and flexible with changing demands, CIOs “need more lead time to build infrastructure and teams,” Parker added.

However, according to presentation attendee Ilene Elkaim, vice-president of logistics and information technology for Roots Canada Ltd. in Toronto, CEOs and other executives can’t afford to forget the key role CIOs play.

“We are the business,” she told delegates. “Just turn off the computers and see how much business you generate without them.”

There’s a lot of work to be done to eliminate the “us and them mentality,” Elkaim later told ComputerWorld Canada. “We need to bridge those gaps and stop talking about being separate. There’s a long way to go, but seeing ourselves as the business is at least a starting point.”

Schwartz agreed. “That idea of separation is one of the snakes we’ve got to kill. Until we start behaving like we are the business, we won’t be the business.”

The concept of running at the same speed as the CEO is “somewhat counter to what we have to do in order to do a good job,” Parker said.

The solution,

he continued, is no different now than it was 15 to 20 years ago. The first step is to deal with one’s business peers “as if they are your customers, as if you’re running your own business, and respond to their requests within their time frames.”

It’s not the easiest thing to swallow, especially when CIOs deal with the question of who they have to report to, but in order to survive, it’s got to be done, he said.