Why the CIO should not be seen as a strategic partner

Why the CIO should not be seen as a strategic partner

The conventional wisdom in the world of IT is that the CIO should be a legitimate path to the real power seats (COO or CEO), and that IT should be seen as one of the organization’s strategic assets. After all, our entire economy is becoming based on IT-enabled businesses, starting with Microsoft and Apple and leading to entities such as AirBNB and Uber. How could IT not be considered a strategic asset?

The simple answer: it’s not a strategic asset when it isn’t.

Two separate articles crossed my inbox today providing different insights on the same problem: many CIOs can’t seem to see either the forest OR the trees.

In one, the venerable McKinsey company notes that IT should be an increasingly important strategic asset. The same survey found that CIOs are still not included in the ranks of strategic partners. The report also alludes to, without showing actual response proportions, the fact that IT “is also” continuing to struggle to deliver commodity services effectively. McKinsey didn’t comment on what seems to be a pretty obvious linkage.

Another article, from NextGov, bemoans the departure from Federal ranks of agency CIOs, most of whom are political appointees, although many do arrive there after extensive civil service careers. The concern is that agencies are being robbed of essential technical expertise by the sudden departure of the top 2 or 3 people in their IT hierarchies. If this is true, then it explains why, in that segment at least, IT might be under-performing. Do these agencies have hundreds, if not thousands of employees or contractors unable to perform their roles in planning, coding, testing, project management, systems administration, security and so on, unless a top executive is on hand to supervise?

If that is the case [and I don’t think it is], then the role of the departing CIO should have been to provide the workforce with the skills they needed to execute their jobs, or to have found someone who could.

Many in the IT world believe that if only the CIO had a seat at the table, then things would be different.

  • It doesn’t matter whether you have a seat at the table if nobody will listen to what you have to say
  • You won’t get a seat at the table unless you can perform your basic functions effectively. In fact, in any other division of the organization, collective incompetence is not tolerated. IT may be the only division that can sustain a reputation for inability to deliver, year after year, without all of the leaders and managers being unceremoniously replaced.

This is not to denigrate the capabilities of those IT managers. It is not an easy task to keep a complex network running and secure. But IT professionals need to understand that until they can perform the miracle of making this complex task look simple, the other business units are not going to allow them to take a leading role in shaping the affairs of the organization.

We have tools and techniques at our disposal. There are so many automated management packages and processes on the market that we have to depend on analysts and Gartner, Forrester and similar firms to categorize and evaluate them all for us. Of course, the tools don’t work unless backed up by effective processes and standards, and again we have a plethora. Everybody knows about ITIL, CMM, COBIT, NIST standards and the like. Every major software vendor has certification programs on both their tools and the underlying business processes to ensure that the tools can be employed effectively.

Perhaps all that is just too darned complicated? In that case, what approaches are working better?

Or is it that we only hear about the situations where things aren’t working well? Perhaps there are hundreds of thousands of businesses and more than a handful of government agencies where IT performs its routines smoothly. In that case, maybe we should celebrate them more, and use them as role models, rather than focusing on the few that aren’t able to make it work. If that were the story that is getting out, then perhaps organizations would be more willing to let IT step up to the plate (after finding IT staff who could perform at the same level as everyone else).

It’s been my experience that processes and tools are wasted on people who don’t see much need to work together and don’t place much value on process as a means of ensuring effective delivery. In some cases, they may not even see a need to be effective. Many of the resources from Decision Integration LLC are about how to start down the path of the culture change needed to get past those obstacles, recognizing that one of the first steps is showing people why it is a good idea and in their interest to do so.

But I’d be the first to acknowledge that my experience may differ, because consultants only get invited into situations that need to be improved on.

What’s your experience? Is IT able to deliver at the commodity level well enough to justify being allowed a greater role in corporate affairs? If so, who is doing that and what are they doing to get it right? If not, what should we do to start delivering effectively?