Ah, the life of a consultant: traveling the globe all year long; advising CIOs on the pressing issues of the day; demonstrating the value of IT to management; examining budgets one more time to extract the last nickel of savings; implementing the latest release and add-on module from the enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) vendors; architecting middleware that can finally integrate all the company’s applications; modeling processes to demonstrate compliance with the US Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX). Then home, while clients are on hiatus for the holidays, we discover there’s not much to do in our daily routine; you can watch only so much television. Time to take stock and reflect on the year that was.
Looking back at 2004
In retrospect, 2004 was yet another year devoted to working on IT tactics: basic blocking and tackling, clubbing alligators, answering allegations, demonstrating compliance, and repeated upward craning of the neck to view and respond to the directives and edicts from the top floor. This reminds me of the kids I saw playing the game Crack the Whip on a frozen pond last week: top-floor management is in the middle, making tiny adjustments in direction and velocity; and IT is the last kid on the line — last to get the word — ending up once again with its head in the snowbank.
And that’s when it hits you. What ever happened to strategic initiatives? What happened to serving as the CIO in the true meaning of the title — that is, advising the company on how to more effectively utilize IT to achieve business goals or on how to move toward the center of the line in Crack the Whip, if not how to to be the central player of the game? Where has strategy gone?
For many years, and more profoundly for the past couple, CIOs have focused their energy on fixing the immediate IT crises: downsizing, Y2K, SOX, application and data integration, infrastructure consolidation (i.e., “burning” platform issues). The result: even though you as the CIO report to the CEO and sit on the company’s strategic planning committee, there has been little time to think strategically or to act as the strategic technology advisor to the company.
Will 2005 prove to be different? Perhaps the economy will afford that opportunity, but most likely only for those CIOs prepared to seize the moment and transition from their support role of reacting to burning platform issues to that of enabling the business to succeed through the strategic use of IT.
This latter role — the one you signed up for and the one for which you were hired — is far different from supporting the business with technology. It’s about using technology to dominate your industry. Perhaps I watched too much football over the holidays, with its frequent cry of “dominate, dominate,” but isn’t that what the strategic goal of IT should be? And isn’t CIO leadership about enabling the company to dominate or at least to transform the company into an industry leader through the strategic use of technology? A company’s domination of the industry through the strategic use of technology doesn’t just happen. Behind each success is IT leadership, IT innovation, and an IT process that enables transformation of the company through the strategic use of technology. Let’s consider what is required.
By definition, leadership is proactive. Strategic technology leadership is about taking technology to the organization, not waiting for the organization to come to IT for support. While the most extreme examples of taking technology to the organization result in business transformation (i.e., changing the nature of the company’s industry through creative use of technology), not all examples of IT leadership need to be so dramatic. In one case, a software company whose product was used in the design of integrated circuits became the de facto industry standard. Basic circuit designs that were created using the company’s software were being licensed by their creators to others. IT proposed establishing a database of circuits designed using the company’s software and serving as a broker of these designs between creators and consumers. The new business generated significant additional revenue and further established the company’s product as the industry standard.
Strategic technological innovation requires overtly investigating emerging and developmental technologies in order to (1) present the most promising as solutions to business needs; (2) absorb the shock of technology experimentation before it is required by the company; and (3) actively seek out business problems in which existing as well as emerging technology may be applied. Here I am reminded of a fast-food franchise whose CIO, in conversation with the point-of-sale process organization some years ago, learned that the key problem with drive-through operations involved incorrect or incomplete orders resulting from language barriers between the customer and order taker. It seemed that between the poor communication equipment in use and various different accents due to ethnicity, many orders were incorrect when the customer arrived at the pickup window. But because IT’s investigation group had recently explored advances in video monitors, it was easily to develop and implement a solution whereby monitors displayed the order to the customer as understood by the order taker. As a result of IT’s leadership in technology innovation, competitive advantage was realized.
Technological dominance within an industry can be serendipitous, but a process usually results from that dominance. A CEO beneficiary of competitive advantage described this phenomenon as “three-quarters luck and three-quarters perspiration.” Sam Snead, the once-dominant professional golfer, had just holed a shot from a sand bunker to take the lead in a tournament that he eventually won. A fan who witnessed the shot from the sand bunker remarked, “Gee, Mr. Snead, that sure was a lucky shot you made.” Snead responded, “Yeah, and the more I practice, the luckier I get.” Achieving strategic technological dominance requires luck — being in the right place at the right time with a great idea — but it also requires “practice,” as Mr. Snead calls it: practice in the form of a process. The strategic IT process involves the following:
- Investigating to build an awareness of technology’s evolution
- Continually working to understand business goals, issues, opportunities, and problems
- Bringing the above two processes together in an epiphany
This can happen serendipitously or can be the result of IT’s hard work, such as through the following activities:
- Implementing a formal process for collecting, investigating, and experimenting with technological evolution in IT
- Establishing and participating in IT special-interest groups
- Conducting routine focus group meetings with line managers regarding business issues, constraints, opportunities, or risks they face
- Forming a technology advisory counsel composed of peers from noncompeting companies to seek novel ways to incorporate technology into your organization
Call to action
The time has come for IT to make the transition from extinguisher of burning platform issues to champion of technology-enabled business solutions. The coming year appears to offer a respite from crises and an opportunity to exploit technology for those challenged and prepared. Preparation involves deliberate innovation, a process, persistence, and presence. The rewards for success can be significant and include new revenue sources, recognition, prestige, and competitive advantage. The search for technology-enabled business solutions also occasionally results in transformation of the industry, with leading-edge implications for the innovating organization. All in all, a great way to start planning for and thinking about the new year ahead.