Chief information officers at technology companies can have it tough. For one, IT operates as a group of technologists in a sea of technologists. Often the engineers in the traditional “business” functions think of themselves as doing more important work than that of the IT department, which leads to the conclusion IT and the CIO are really focused on more commoditized work; work that could be outsourced and little difference would be felt by the enterprise. These same “business” engineers may simply think that they can do the CIOs job better than the CIO can.
I have had the privilege of interviewing a vast number of CIOs of tech-centric companies like Google, HP, Cisco, Microsoft, Intel, Netflix. I also recently spoke about this topic with Lee Congdon, CIO of Red Hat in 150th broadcast of the Forum on World Class IT. What these executives and others have mentioned as remedies to the traditional issues plaguing CIOs can be encapsulated in five lessons:
- Change your mindset from order taker to essential advisor
- Recognize the advantage of breadth
- Become customer one to the enterprise
- Develop a “semester abroad” program
- Develop ideas with financial impact
1. Change your mindset from order taker to essential advisor
Years ago, the average CIO was an order taker, waiting for project ideas to pursue or issues to resolve from colleagues outside of IT. Now, to a greater extent, CIOs are functioning like the business functions that they are meant to be. This is all the more the case where technology is the business. In all companies, IT provides and supports the technical environment, including the software and hardware that is used, and IT should communicate in such a transparent fashion that it is clear to the rest of the company how IT evolves, what it is developing to increase the productivity of employees and value to customers to the point where IT’s advice is sought out proactively by colleagues across the organization. The analogy I like is that of a physician. Just as we seek the counsel of a doctor when we are injured or ill because of a specialized expertise that will hasten the path to recovery, so too should IT be sought out when opportunities or issues be identified by colleagues. IT must take the steps in order to make this happen by being not only transparent, but also accountable to a greater extent than has been the average for CIOs past.
Being an essential advisor requires strong listening skills. Many good leaders are great speakers. Fewer are great listeners. To advise someone, one must listen to their objectives, opportunities, issues, and the like. CIOs should encourage better listening skills among the IT team to uncover ways in which IT can be of assistance. An advisory role also requires developing an R&D mentality to the IT team, seeking out new opportunities to pursue that can bring to life objectives of different divisions of the company. Being informed ensures that IT will have good insights to offer, leading the rest of the organization to seek IT’s counsel to a greater extent.
Recognize the advantage of breadth
The IT department has reason to interact with all other divisions of the company in ways that are different from other executives of the company. Not only should IT weave itself into the planning processes of each division of the company, it is likely to bring to life a variety of imperatives that are included in those plans.
Additionally, if one contemplates the biggest technology trends today, such as social, mobile, analytics, and various items that might be captured under the rubric of “consumerization of IT”, each provides an opportunity for IT to work in concert with one or multiple other divisions of the company to bring these to life. In fact, there are a growing number of companies where it is those other functions leading the charge on some of these initiatives, like Marketing taking over analytics, or PR/Communications taking over social. This is not a bad thing per se, but if they elect to push ahead in these areas without involving, IT, that is an indication of how little respect that department has. If IT is to be the essential advisor mentioned in the prior section, then it’s advice should be essential on such topics.
Therefore, IT should find a way to become part of the strategy sessions of each of the divisions of the company, and develop interesting and innovative ideas about how IT can push forward a variety of imperatives on a regular basis.
Become customer one to the enterprise
I am astounded by the number of companies that serve the CIO community, and yet their IT departments do not use their own products. If a CIO client were to meet the company’s CIO and discover this fact, it would make sense for the CIO client to ask who the company CIO uses and simply engage with them. Frankly, it is risky not to be customer one.
Beyond that, however, there are a variety of reasons why it is important for IT departments to be customer one for their companies. First, the company can receive unbiased feedback from a relevant constituent group. Second, the IT department has more at stake in ensuring that the company’s products or services are successful than any true client. Third, the fact that IT and the rest of the organization share offices means that collaboration can be that much more seamless.
Develop a “semester abroad” program
Here I am using the terminology of my friend, Duane Anderson, who is the COO of Marquette Group/USMotivation, and used to be an IT executive at Harrah’s Entertainment. He describes the need for IT team members to do an assignment if not a longer stay with other departments of the company or even out in the “field” however that might be defined in a company. Especially in a technology-centric company, the technical facets to other parts of the organization are likely to be accessible to IT resources. IT should strive to be a sufficiently high performing team in order to justify that colleagues in other parts of the organization would wish to join IT for a period, as well. By walking a miles in multiple sets of shoes, IT and non-IT employees alike should benefit mightily.
Develop ideas with financial impact
Since tech-centric firms make money through the development and sales of technology, the possibility that IT be cordoned off as the non-revenue generating part of technology is much more significant. Therefore, IT must strive all the more to be responsible for contributing not only to cost saving measures, but also to revenue generating ones. Part of this should come through greater collaboration with colleagues outside of IT, as the fashion in which each division defines value ought to be the cue for IT to collaborate on any relevant points. It also requires that IT define the return on investment (ROI) of its investments to a greater extent. IT has not been scrutinized for ROI in the past as much as many other divisions. Part of the reason is that it was not believed that IT could drive an ROI. The best IT departments, of tech-centric companies and others, are making this a regular part of the business case process for new projects, and gaining much more credibility, as a result. Once IT is seen as delivering higher value, IT is much more likely to be treated as essential advisor, and thus the virtuous cycle continues.
By following these five lessons, CIOs in tech-centric companies and beyond should be much better positioned to emerge from the shadows of the company structure to be seen as a driver of value, as it should be.
Peter High is the President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs, and the moderator of the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. To read his series on CIO-pluses, visit this link. To read his series profiling CIOs who have risen beyond that role, visit this link. Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT.