Thornton May: 3 questions every CIO must answer

The most important strategic question that organizations can ask themselves is "What business are we in?" according to the formulation of revered Harvard Business Review editor Ted Levitt. Lacking the succinctness of the late professor, I see three strategic questions that successful next-generation CIOs must answer.

What business is IT in today?

Over the past two months, I asked this of hundreds of CIOs in facilitated workshops on three continents. In freewheeling discussions, CIOs often opined that "IT is in every business." This "bits are everywhere" idea reflects a prevalent macro trend in which all things are being digitized. That thought also contributed to a frequently heard lament: "We are in the always-behind business." That many IT executives feel this way is a byproduct of another macro trend: the ever-accelerating pace of change and users' lack of patience. That source of frustration naturally led to just about every CIO I spoke with wanting to get out of the "do more with less" business.

But does any of this top-of-mind venting answer the actual question? To better determine what business IT is in today, we added more granularity to the question, asking where IT is actually spending its time and resources. From that, we got this interesting Global 2000 result: 61% of the respondents said that they are in a combination of the "infrastructure business" (that is, keeping the lights on) and the "integration business" (gluing together various stovepipe legacy systems so they can interoperate on a semi-non-toxic basis).

What business should IT be in tomorrow?

You'd be hard pressed, though, to find anyone who believes that infrastructure and integration should be IT's sole focus in the future. What I see is a consensus that IT will play a more significant role in the future. Kevin Turner, Microsoft's chief operating officer, nails the zeitgeist by portraying the CIO evolutionary path as moving from technology piece-part management, through transforming the IT environment, to enabling business excellence, and finally coming to rest at "strategic business leadership."

But what exactly does that mean?

It means that IT is no longer just in the business of compliance, cost reduction, project delivery and device provisioning. It means that IT should essay mightily to get out of the "apologizing for old, uncool and irrelevant systems" business. Instead, it should position itself as being in the "creating and preventing strategic surprise" business.

IT is not just in the "we can do better" business. It is in the "we can do things previously thought impossible" business.

What should the "I" in "CIO" signify?

Because many IT shops feel forced to follow what might be the motto of the Nancy Reagan School of Technology Management ("Just say no!"), the "I" in "CIO" often seems to stand for "insignificant," "irrelevant," "invisible" or "in the way."

In workshops, we asked technology executives what they wanted the "I" to signify. The answers included "imagination," "income," "intelligence," "investment," "inspiration" and "innovation."

Looking to the future, then, what IT needs to do is to balance its current focus on infrastructure and integration with a new reputation for inspiration and innovation.

Thornton A. May is author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics and executive director of the IT Leadership Academy at Florida State College in Jacksonville. You can contact him at thorntonamay@aol.com or follow him on Twitter ( @deanitla).

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