Monday, October 17, 2011

Not What I Had in Mind

Last Friday, I read an article in CIO INSIGHT entitled “An Open Ended Letter to your CEO: What IT Really Needs.” The article caused my knee to jerk quite a bit, a better title might have been “Dear CEO: Here’s Why I Don’t Deserve a Seat at the Executive Table.” If the sentiments expressed in the letter accurately reflect views within IT organizations (and there is evidence suggesting that this is the case), then CIOs have a lot of work to do if they wish to develop their organizations into strategic assets.

After my knee jerk though, it dawned on me that the views expressed in the letter do reflect real IT management problems, namely difficulty in managing expectations, lack of business knowledge in the IT organization, and lack of mutual accountability between IT and the business. But, when we in IT take on the attitude that “we are doing just fine, we just need to get everyone outside of IT under control” we separate ourselves from the business in ways that leads to our being left out of critical conversations. That relegates us to the role of order takers, which puts IT on a slippery slope leading to increased marginalization and loss of credibility. In “Technical Skills No Longer Matter” I suggested that this leads to be role of CIO being downgraded to the role of utility services manager. I have higher aspirations.

A better approach to engagement I believe is for the IT organization to let the external, end-user centric point of view predominate in our organizations. When we stop thinking as technicians and start thinking about IT the same way our end users do, we build a firmer base for positive collaborations with the business side of the organization. With just such a foundation, I believe we can make progress on the three issues identified by the CIO INSIGHT piece.
  • Stop complaining about lack of resources and increased expectations. Doing more with less is the name of the game in the “new normal.” Use collaborations with the business to bring expectations down so that they match the level of resources available. Recognize that this is a leadership issue and not a management issue. Managers confront this challenge by attempting to forge consensus on priorities, which is often difficult or impossible regardless of governance strategies. Leaders collect data and convene important conversations about priorities, but then they make decisions and jealously guard the scope of what their organizations are responsible for. Sometimes, this requires CIOs to make difficult or unpopular decisions. Get comfortable with the way this feels, it is the price of being a C level executive.
  • Accept the responsibility for learning more about the business and hold yourselves accountable for doing so. We talk about understanding the need for IT to better understand and engage the business on its own terms, but then we do the same old things over and over: we hire for technical skills, then promote based on ability to implement technology, and then do anything to retain because of critical technical skills. Stop it! Recognize that there is a broad set of competencies that distinguish high and low performers and adjust your HR practices so that you no longer hire, promote, and retain based on technical proficiency alone.
  • Assess and plan based on end-user focused IT outcomes. Regardless of your line of business, find out the key performance indicators that define success for your organization, assess those outcomes regularly, and hold yourself accountable to them. Using IT focused metrics alone, though important for internal management, tends to widen the engagement gap because such metrics tend to focus on concepts that are important but not necessarily strategic to the business. Find out what drives the success of your organization and then focus like a laser on those outcomes. When you do, you will find it easier to both manage expectations and align what you do with the business side of the organization.
Above all else, accept that we alone in IT are responsible for bridging gaps with the communities that we serve and that reliance on technology and technical skills rarely helps us to do so. When we bridge those gaps something magical can happen - the IT organization will begin to be seen as a strategic asset. And as a bonus, the CIO will be recognized for what they should be – a C level executive.

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