CIOs advise on how to build the business case for cloud

So your CEO returns from a conference and pulls you aside in the hall. Having just learned all there is to know about a comprehensive cloud strategy by reading an article on a flight back from Las Vegas, the CEO wants to know why the whole business isn’t moving everything it can to the cloud right now?

That’s the challenge that came up at a recent Canadian CIO roundtable in Toronto, where a group of high-profile CIOs and other top IT executives came together to discuss the pros and cons, benefits and challenges of embracing a hybrid cloud infrastructure. This round table series brings together a panel of top IT executives with major vendors for a frank “off the record” discussion of the challenges and opportunities facing IT.  This session, sponsored by HP Canada and OnX focused on how to survive in a cloud-obsessed business world.

Cloud isn’t a new term anymore, but IT still struggles with misconceptions from line of business and the C-suite as to what cloud is and isn’t.  “People will talk to the CEO after coming back from a conference, and they say ‘I got told we need a cloud. Go build me a cloud! I need it and I need it very soon,’” said James Drover, principal consultant and director at OnX. “But really, it has to be driven by practical business applications.”

For many businesses, cloud may not be what they need at all. “The application and the service level it requires,” Drover said, “need to drive the destination for the application, not the other way around.”

One CIO in attendance picked up on this theme, blaming media hype around cloud (from sources other than Canadian CIO, of course!) for creating unrealistic, and indeed impossible, expectations among non-IT executives. For example, this CIO said, his CEO was wondering why they weren’t using the cloud version of their ERP package, since cloud was clearly all the rage.  What that CEO didn’t realize was that there was no cloud version of the company’s ERP package.

Pressure can be intense from both the corner office and line of business to go with the hot topic of the day.  As another CIO noted, a well-reasoned business case against moving certain applications or workloads to the cloud can be lost in the emotional investment in the “shiny new thing.”  When this happens, “IT is viewed as putting up barriers, in spite of the fact that you’ve come to them with a better solution that will meet business needs and protect the business’ interests. But it’s not what they read in the magazine on a plane, so it’s not what they latched on to,” the executive lamented.

Another CIO offered a more conciliatory tone, explaining that CEOs and the line of business may push hard for what they perceive as a solid solution to a real business problem. But in many cases, they simply may not have asked the right questions to get the answers they need to ensure the solution is the right fit.  If IT can address this issue, cloud can be a great democratizer, the way of breaking through old-fashioned, slow and cautious role of IT, one that leads to faster results from technology investment for the business.

Clearly, IT has to find ways to address the issues.  There is no stopping the move to cloud warned Jim Love, CIO and chief digital officer of ITWC, and the host of the discussion.  “If you’re Dr. No, there’s a smooth talking devil who’s got a sales quota and will present them a solution to all the problems they have,” warned Love.

Of course, that “solution” will likely not end up being the panacea the salesperson promises. Despite the claims about flexibility of cloud solutions, many cloud vendor contracts are ultimately about customer lock-in. Chris Christianopoulos from HP stressed that “open standards are needed to give organizations flexibility. No organization,” said Christianopoulos, “should be tied to a single vendor.”

So it’s important to have the bigger conversation with the business about business outcome, rather than cloud strategy per se. To get that going, Love suggested IT leaders focus on the business results.

Love also advised that CIOs avoid the usual platitudes.  “You can talk about things using words like agility but that’s too high level. Let’s talk about what we need to accomplish for the business in specific terms like increased sales, customer retention, real dollar savings or revenue growth,” he said. “It’s only when you speak in real, measurable business results that you get anywhere.”

By speaking in business terms, IT can find a role as an advisor and facilitator in, rather than an impediment to, cloud strategy.  When it does this, IT can have a real impact on the discussion about cloud within the business, elevating that discussion to more fully represent the needs and sensitivities of the whole business, and earning the right to help educate the rest of the business on the pros and cons of cloud in the organization.

One CIO said that in their organization, what worked was defining an overall cloud strategy for the organization, with IT setting goals with several lines of business and opening up lines of communications. “We had a couple of business units that were going out there, but they didn’t realize all the different dimensions of it, how it can be more expensive if you’re not careful,” the CIO said.

How to get started?   OnX’s Drover suggested using “cloud workshops” that include senior management from across the business. The first goal of such a workshop is to define a common lexicon for the business, and then to pick priorities for business transformation through technology that offers the biggest return in the quickest time.

“Get the whole business on the same page, driven by the same goals, pick the pieces you want to start with, and go from there,” Drover advised.

The CIO Roundtable Series offers CIOs a unique forum to have hard hitting and frank discussions with their peers and selected experts from the vendor community.  In these private sessions, we’re able to share strategies and the challenges that we as CIOs face in a real world setting.  No hype or droning presentations — just real discussion. These sessions are held regularly across Canada.  If you wish to receive an invitation to a session, or have suggestions on future topics please write to [email protected]

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Robert Dutt
Robert Dutt
Robert Dutt has been covering the Canadian IT industry, with a close focus on SMB and the solution providers that serve them, for almost twenty years.

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