The strategic CIO

Even though there’s a “C” in their titles, chief information officers frequently complain they don’t get the same respect as other executives.

Perhaps this is with good reason:  CIO is one of the few C-level jobs that routinely have an added level between the CEO.   The maxim “the CIO proposes, the CFO opposes” takes on a new meaning if the chief information officer reports to another C level, frequently the CFO.

After the perceived debacle of Y2K it seemed that every major spending request needed to demonstrate a clear ROI.  It sounds good in theory, until you consider that many essential technology improvements have no direct ROI.  Critical areas of risk reduction such as backups, disaster recovery and security are necessary but difficult to defend.  Strategic capabilities and capacity not only take time to build but also have no immediate ROI.   And if truth be told, in all but a few rare cases, technology gives an organization the capability to achieve ROI – the real benefits happen in the business units who use that capability.  As one fellow CIO said to me one time – “you want to see the business value of IT?  Go and pull out that plug and see what happens.  People will wake up to the value.”

He was speaking metaphorically of course, but it was accurate.  ROI is a game that few of us really could win. Yet who pays the price if the company has a problem or lacks capacity for growth?

In today’s world technology failures make headlines – especially when privacy or security are involved.  But even if something isn’t front-page news, frustration with the technology infrastructure affects everyone and gets noticed.  Networks are slow? Systems are down? Projects are late?  Systems are hacked?  Programs fail or crash?  Infrastructure can’t support growth or exploit new opportunities?  Everybody knows who to blame.

It’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t.   CIOs are held accountable for all failures of technology, even when there isn’t a hope that they could have prevented the issue even when we aren’t given the budgets we need.

It goes with the job.  Nobody said that life is fair.  But it is no small wonder so many CIO’s have played it safe and focused on defence.  Many have adopted the mantra of the bottom line.  We became experts on cost cutting, efficiency and reduction of IT costs.

A cruel irony is that after years of budgets being slashed, of doing more with less, there is a danger that CIOs will be passed by in the first big recent opportunity for investment and growth in strategic technology spending.  Analytics and big data are key areas where organizations are prepared and even eager to spend.   But that spending is moving from IT and the CIO to marketing and the chief marketing officer (CMO) or even the chief digital officer (CDO).

So much for the CIOs being a strategic partner in their business.  Some days it seems like you can’t catch a break.

So is there no hope?  Can a CIO who is on the losing end change their situation?  How does someone who is not seen as a strategic player become one?  Can you change the game?

Yes you can.   How?  Watch great CEOs.  They are always seen as strategic thinkers.   How do they do it?   The reality is that few great CEOs play defence – they aren’t known for policing the bottom line.  They have people who do that.  Great CEOs drive the top line.

So if your conversations are all defence or risk oriented – if they are all bottom line, are you really talking their language?  Probably not.

Many of us have spent a career managing the complexity of technology.  We despair when people can’t understand that complexity.  Some of us try to help them understand.

Great CEOs are also dealing with complex and difficult problems.  We kid ourselves if we think that only technology is complicated.  Finance, marketing, operations, human resources – these all have their own complexity.  So we could learn from what the best CEOs do.  They excel at simplifying complexity.   They’ll take a complex concept and distil it to its essence.  They’ll reduce an entire corporate strategy to a few critical statements or a handful of key strategic measures.

They have to do this.  Only by narrowing and simplifying can they keep the organization on the path of relentlessly focusing on key strategic goals and measures.  How do they pick which ones to focus on?  Maybe it’s the nature of the beast, but I think most of them pursue an offensive strategy – they pick things that drive the top line.

If I’m right CIO’s who want to make the leap from tactical to strategic will do it by focusing more on the top line than the bottom line.   How do you do that in the context of technology?  It is possible.

I recently attended a presentation from a Gartner executive who pointed out that if CIOs want to be thought of as strategic – they need to act strategically.  His number one suggestion?  CIOs should do a regular review of technology threats to revenue.

I was blown away.  It’s a simple idea, but a powerful one.  Can you be more relevant to the business strategy than by showing the impact of technology on the top line?  It’s also relevant to the business.  We all know that the digital camera killed Kodak.  We know that Wikipedia killed the encyclopedia.  These are the high profile examples.  But as we move to an increasingly digital economy, each industry has vulnerabilities in this area.  In the publishing industry, where I spend my time as CIO, we have witnessed the obliteration of the once profitable business of print.  Thankfully, we saw this and adapted our business model.  Other publishers weren’t so lucky.   Our president and publisher, Fawn Annan saw this coming.  I would like to think that it was our partnership of foresight and strategic rebuilding of technology that enabled us to survive and possibly to prosper in the future.  We did cut costs, but we did it so we could invest in the platforms of the future.  Time will tell, but it was an entirely strategic conversation with a top line focus that took us this far.

How about your industry?  It could be as big as a major technological disruptor or as simple as the threat of a competitor adopting a new technology and gaining a competitive advantage. The point is that the best person to identify your company’s threats to revenue from technology is the CIO.

Sometimes risk isn’t the language that your company speaks.   That’s okay.  An equally powerful case could be made for opportunities as opposed to risk.  There are opportunities to leverage technology to advance the corporate strategies.

When Sheila Jordan was at Cisco, she made an impressive case for collaboration as the “IT investment of the decade.”  We had a great conversation on how what she termed the  “five pillars” aligned and supported collaboration.

Those pillars are mobile, video, social and collaborative technologies.  For CIOs there is nothing exceptional on this list.  What was exceptional is the way Sheila dealt with them.

For example, when Sheila described Cisco’s BYOD policy she spent very little time on the  technical challenge.  Instead she focused on how its strategy was a win-win-win.  True, it saved the company a lot of money.  Sheila noted that, but it wasn’t her main focus. Instead she focused on how her initiatives made employees more collaborative and more productive.  We could have discussed security, MDM and all of the “plumbing” of BYOD, but her focus was firmly on how this could enable the corporate strategy.    If you are interested, it would be worth it to check out the series we did with her in Canadian CIO.

It might be tempting to dismiss these two examples as simply “packaging”. The fact is that they do cover areas CIOs must deal with to transform our businesses.  But if you simply look at it as “packaging” you’ve missed the point.  The secret of being strategic is not what you deal with but how you see it and talk about it.

Think about it.  And as always, I’d love to hear your ideas, comments or criticism.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Jim Love
Jim Love
I've been in IT and business for over 30 years. I worked my way up, literally from the mail room and I've done every job from mail clerk to CEO. Today I'm CIO and Chief Digital Officer of IT World Canada - Canada's leader in ICT publishing and digital marketing.

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