What CIO hasn’t at times felt overwhelmed by the job? The plain and simple fact of the matter is that the job of CIO can be impossibly demanding. Short of cloning oneself, how do you find enough hours in the day to meet the myriad needs and expectations of the organization? At New Brunswick Power Corp. that’s more than a rhetorical question. In fact, they’ve answered it with an intriguing new model for the CIO’s office, which they call CIO3 (CIO cubed).
Born out of necessity, CIO3 had its origins in early 2000. In January of that year, the Fredericton-based power company entered into a strategic planning process for IT (referred to internally as BIS, or Business Information Systems), venturing into the development of a market model for BIS. In May of 2000, however, CIO Paul Gour accepted an outside offer and left the company after two successful years at the helm of IT.
During his tenure, Gour had been given two broad areas of focus: one internal (improving the IT organization’s level of service to the company) and one external (getting business unit leaders to a point where they understood IT as a strategic tool for their business). But as things turned out, his focus was almost entirely on the internal piece; he could never find much time to devote to the external aspects of the job.
The person charged with hiring Gour’s replacement, VP of IT and CFO Sharon MacFarlane, was determined to address this problem. “Paul and I talked about what could be done about it,” she said. “Paul is a very capable guy, but he said that he was often overwhelmed because the job is so very big, the areas of focus are so diverse, and the challenges are huge.”
Short of finding a superhero with the letters CIO on his chest, it was evident that no single person could successfully tackle the job in its entirety – pulling together all of the plans for IT, helping BIS deliver its market model, helping the company meet its business needs, and doing all the things that needed to be done in moving forward.
Still there were some strong internal candidates well suited to tackling various aspects of the job, and MacFarlane couldn’t help musing, “Isn’t a shame that I can’t have part of that person, part of this person, and part of that person.”
That’s when the light bulb went on, and the concept of CIO3 first began to take shape.
REVVING UP THE MODEL
Assisted by Calian, a consulting and professional services firm based in Ottawa, MacFarlane began exploring alternative CIO models that might help the company accomplish the task at hand. The model that caught her attention was one used by Harley-David-son, which had embraced a team approach to IT leadership in response to challenges in recruiting.
Over the next few months, MacFarlane, in concert with key BIS managers and Calian strategic change facili-tator Ron Wiens (whose group now operates under the AcerrA banner), hammered out the details of a model that split the CIO duties over three people. A series of workshops was held, starting at the most basic level: ‘what is the role of the CIO?’ Sixteen key areas of responsibility were identified – including such things as managing day-to-day operations, change management, promoting the IT vision and values, and creating strategy – and each of these was analyzed from various angles, such as ‘what is the desired outcome from undertaking this accountability?’ and ‘how is that accountability going to be met?’ The 16 areas of responsibility were eventually divided into three groups, each ascribed to one of three prospective CIOs that would have equal standing in the organization. When mapped against the market model for BIS, the groupings worked out pretty clearly. What evolved, in the end, was a very measurable and very defined model.
During this period, a transitional team of managers emerged as the leaders that kept BIS rolling: Debbie Chezenko, who had been heading up a major SAP implementation, Jacquie Cleveland, who had been in charge of strategic IT matters and client delivery, and Jim Farmer, who had been in charge of infrastructure.
Not surprisingly, when the CIO3 model was finally defined, it was these three that were named to the CIO triumvirate. Farmer became CIO in charge of production and systems, affectionately tagged “Keeping The Engine Running”; Chezenko was named CIO in charge of planning and business performance, or “Preparing For Tomorrow”; and Cleveland was named CIO of business process solutions, or “Big New Stuff”.
The CIO3 model called for the three CIOs to spend 50% of their time on CIO duties, with the remainder of their time spent on director duties. So strictly speaking, the model results in NB Power having one and a half CIOs. But the difference this sharing of responsibilities makes in the performance of CIO duties is enormous.
COVERAGE IS THE KEY
One of the keys to the model’s success, according to Chezenko, is coverage. “As a single CIO it’s difficult to focus on all the different areas within the organization. You tend to get pushed back into the day-to-day operations and you really don’t have the opportunity to do the forward thinking that you really want to do,” she noted. “With this model you have two counterparts with different skills and personalities. So when we’re discussing issues and problems, we pretty much cover all the issues by the time we’re done, and that has provided us with a tremendous amount of good decision-making.”
Jacquie Cleveland has another take on one of the key benefits of the model: it lies in the courage it gives you.
“When a decision has to be held up to challenges over a long period of time, it can be easy to say, ‘I’m going to compromise here, because I just don’t have the energy to fight these battles and at the same time do some of these other things.’ With the three of us, it gives you the courage and the support to stick with a decision – a decision that has been made after it has been ratified by three people and not just one. And that is the crux of the benefit of the CIO3 model: when you walk through the door and you sit down with the other two CIOs you leave that responsibility for your particular area at the door. You are really thinking for the benefit of the corporation and for the whole of BIS.”
MAKING BIS WORK
No sooner was the CIO3 model up and running when it met its first big test. In the fall of 2000, Jim Farmer left the company to pursue another opportunity. This gave NB Power the chance to reevaluate the concept. It could return to a single CIO, move forward with its two remaining CIOs, or stick with the CIO3 concept and hire a replacement for the departing CIO. It opted for the latter, going through an open competition process that led to the hiring of Dwight Wilson, a client relationship manager for the company, in March, 2001.
The hiring proved relatively painless. Instead of having to fill a gaping hole in the organization created by the departure of a traditional CIO, NB Power was able to rely on its two remaining CIOs during this period to keep BIS on an even keel.
Naturally, with CIO responsibilities being split over three individuals, there’s a huge need for proper communication and planning.
“You can’t just say we’re going to set a team in place and walk away from it. If you’re going to move to this type of model, you have to put the effort into the structure and the defining of account-abilities,” said MacFarlane. “Certain types of processes are required for the CIOs to meet their accountabilities,
and obviously there needs to be some
follow-up on that, often in the form of a meeting.”
Leaving nothing to chance, NB Power laid out a detailed CIO meeting calendar, consisting of approximately 165 meetings over the course of the year. Meetings are designed to address specific accounta-bilities and include only the necessary players. As the year progresses, the meetings provide a track record as to how things are functioning.
Added MacFarlane, “I’m sure if some people heard we had planned 165 meetings, they’d say, ‘My heavens, this is a bureaucracy!’ But if they added up how many meetings they have in a year, I bet they’d find that they have that many or more, and they may not in fact have been as productive in measuring themselves up to their accountabilities.”
In creating the meetings calendar, it was determined who was primarily responsible for each responsibility area, and who was to chair each meeting. If support for a particular meeting was required largely from one CIO’s area of responsibility, then another CIO would chair and initiate the meeting. This provided a kind of check and balance between CIOs, and avoided the problem of one CIO being saddled with the entire responsibility for a particular meeting. It also meant there would always be two CIOs that had an interest in making a meeting happen and having it be successful.
At first glance the detailed CIO meeting calendar was a bit daunting. Admitted Cleveland, “When the timetable arrived with all its pretty colours, we looked at it and went ‘whoa!’ But, actually it’s quite effective. I’m not finding it onerous in terms of setting up the meetings and making them happen, and we’re finding that the meetings that we decided on seem to be the right ones.”
Added Wilson, “We want to use these meetings as a very formal way of tracking what the division is doing. This all rolls up to our monthly divisional reporting to the executive, our bi-monthly reporting to the board and our reporting to the audit committee of the board. So it’s meant to be a structured process. We want to remove the ad hoc nature of the conduct of our business.”
Of course not all meetings are planned. Noted Chezenko, “The three of us are situated a couple of doors apart, so if there’s something that you need to discuss, you do it on a regular basis. It’s not uncommon for us to get together for 15 minutes at the beginning of each day and talk about some of the key issues that we’re dealing with – bounce things off one another and go from there.”
GETTING THE BUSINESS ON BOARD
The CIO3 model is meeting expectations from a management perspective. But how have NB Power’s business lines reacted to it? This represents a significant change for them.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of implementing the model was getting the organization to buy into the idea of team leadership of IT. “People’s first reaction was total disbelief, and the thought that this too shall pass – it will all be back again in normal form within three months. It will never work,” said Cleveland.
“People like to be able to point at someone and say ‘you’re it’. So there was a little lack of understanding and belief that we could make this thing happen,” added MacFarlane. “The challenge is that with three people, without an awful lot of work and an awful lot of belief in the common vision, you will get diverse vision, and you can get egos in the way. I assured my colleagues that I would not let that happen, but more importantly, I didn’t think the CIO team would let it happen, and they certainly haven’t. In working through it, we have overcome people’s doubts, because the benefits are so evident.”
Among those benefits is that fact that the model provides more flexibility in terms of having someone at the CIO level that people can contact. Noted Cleveland, “I’ve heard the comment several times: ‘If one of the CIOs isn’t available, I go to another one. I’m not worried that it may be the wrong CIO. I know that I’m going to get an answer, and I can live with that answer.’ There is confidence amongst people that they can go to any one of us. We’ll listen, we’ll chat, and then the right people will be made available for the follow-up discussion without them having to come back and have the same discussion again.”
CHANGING THE IT ORGANIZATION
With the move to the CIO3 model, with its divergent areas of responsibility, there was naturally a significant impact on the IT department. Restructuring became essential.
Many people had strong opinions on where they thought they would like to end up in the organization, so a great deal was at stake in making sure that staff was properly informed as to where BIS was going and how it was going to get there. The process started off by allowing people to have input to the current leadership team.
Once the initial straw model was in place, the management team was brought to the table, and they worked with BIS to establish how the organization would be restructured. After the first two or three iterations of that, another straw model was put in place.
“We would work our way through various exercises, making sure we had identified all of the areas. Then we would sit down and decide, did this look right?” said Chezenko. “We would pass it by groups that currently existed within BIS at the time, and we would get feedback from people. We’d look at their feedback and play it against the model – against our understanding of how we wanted to do these things – and we’d adjust accordingly.”
Integral to this process was establishing the market model within BIS. There was a need to assess the services BIS was providing and determine what they should be, based on what clients were saying.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” added Chezenko, “but it is definitely manageable. It’s a matter of sitting down and determining what services you’re going to be providing and making sure they meet what your client is asking for.”
CHALLENGES AND LESSONS
We asked VP of IT Sharon MacFarlane and the three members of the CIO triumvirate for their final thoughts and advice to other organizations that might be interested in looking at such a model. Here’s what they had to say:
MacFarlane: Organizations have to have a strong belief in teams and the strengths of teams in order to undertake this. If they don’t, they ought not to bother. They should also be conscious of the challenge of creating a clear vision – and clear accountabilities – that all three CIOs can support and buy into. Finally, they have to be prepared to put the effort into defining the model in such a way that it is workable and measurable. If they are prepared to do that, I think the returns are far greater than the investment.
Wilson: The level of communication is critical – you have to articulate what you are doing, why we are doing it, and when. You can deliver a very nice presentation to people in large settings, but they need to hear that message over and over again. People come to grips with the information in different ways. I think initially we did not appreciate the significant amount of time it would take to get everybody on the same page. In hindsight we should have allowed more time and realized how much energy it was going to take to communicate clearly and often to everybody.
Chezenko: It may be beneficial to do a lot of the analysis prior to announcing to the organization that you are going forward with this type of model. I think we would have had much better feedback if we had had more of a complete model – thought through the model more – before announcing it and asking what people think. You have to have a strong model before you start taking input, because I think that by nature people are much better at editing than creating.
Cleveland: What hit me when I became a CIO was the wide breadth of knowledge that you are expected to have. You’re expected to know it all: every aspect of the organization’s current technology, what we might do with technology in the future, and the opportunities out there that could benefit the business. And your knowledge is expected to extend from the high level right down to the extremely detailed level. On top of that, there is the time you must spend dealing with external relationships. Our CIO cubed approach means that we effectively have a CIO who can be in three places at once with a very diversified set of skills. This powerfully serves our changing business needs.
David Carey is a veteran journalist specializing in information technology and IT management. Based in Toronto, he is managing editor of CIO Canada.